Friday, December 14, 2007

Facebook's privacy nightmare

(This has nothing to do with generative art, unless a social networking site is a generative artwork.)

I have a Facebook page. I have found that quite a few of my friends have one, and also I have recently moved interstate, and I thought it might help me to catch up with people I haven't seen for a long time.

But Facebook's new and intrusive "Beacon" data collection system makes me wonder if I should continue. As indicated on a security site here, if anyone logs on to a site which is a Facebook advertising partner, the partner site sends a wad of data to Facebook. If you have a Facebook page, there is a good chance that Facebook will be able to identify you from this data. It is difficult to prevent this data being sent. You can stop it causing messages to appear on your Facebook page, but Facebook still receives the data. More info here.

Facebook's actions caused a large fuss, and Facebook have now promised not to keep the data if I have set my privacy options to block external websites sending stories to my profile.

Do I trust Facebook to honour this promise? Not very far. I use Firefox, and I have downloaded the BlockSite plugin and set it to block http://*facebook.com/beacon/*, as advised in downloadsquad.com here ( check out the comments at the end of the post).

I can't block cookies from Facebook altogether, because if I do, I can't log in, but I have set cookies to evaporate when I close Firefox. I don't click "Remember me" in Facebook. And my date of birth in Facebook is wrong (and not visible to the world).

I will continue to use Facebook for now.

I realise that if I venture onto a social networking site I have to some extent made a compact with the Devil: trade off some of my privacy in return for putting information I choose up on the site. I don't think I can object if Facebook uses the information I put up on my Facebook page to serve me ads, though if it becomes too irritating I will leave. I object very strongly if Facebook is enabling third party sites to send information about me silently to Facebook.

I know that the then CEO of Sun Microsystems said in 1999 that "You have zero privacy anyway - get over it" (an unfortunate statement for the CEO of a company involved in privacy initiatives). I also know that if someone really wants to find out a lot about me, they probably can. But I can at least make it a bit harder for corporate robots, whether silicon- or carbon-based.