How Private Is Facebook Privacy?
by Steve Phillips


In September 2006, I was growing ever more wary of the power of the federal government, because Congress had recently passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which ended habeas corpus (a fundamental human right since the England’s Magna Carta was signed in 1215) in the United States. There is a debate over whether United States citizens have lost their right to a fair trial, or whether it is only captured foreigners suspected of being associated with terrorism that have lost this right. Just hope you don’t get accused of a crime that our President personally considers terrorism, because you won’t have the opportunity to prove your own innocence.

Around this time, I became worried that the federal government would begin to undermine our  human rights, including personal privacy. So, I queried Facebook, which has a lot of personal information about a lot of young people, to find out exactly what information they record about their users. Specifically, I asked whether they keep track of the pictures we view and whether “any government entity [has] ever had access to your database of everyone’s information.” Many days passed without an answer, so I contacted them again. Their response: “I was under the impression that I had already responded to your questions, Steve. Apologies, I guess your email got lost along the way.” Yeah, sure.

Eventually, a man by the name of ‘Pete from Facebook’ replied. (I wonder why he doesn’t specify his real last name. Perhaps he doesn’t like revealing his personal information to people he doesn’t know…) He replied with, in part, “We do not give anybody access to that sort of information, nor will we ever. Don’t worry.” How reassuring.

Part of Facebook’s privacy policy reads, “Facebook may use information in your profile without identifying you as an individual to third parties. We do this for purposes such as aggregating how many people in a network like a band or movie and personalizing advertisements and promotions so that we can provide you Facebook. We believe this benefits you. You can know more about the world around you and, where there are advertisements, they’re more likely to be interesting to you.” Aren’t you glad that Facebook displays personalized ads, not to make billions of dollars, but in an honest effort to educate you ‘about the world around you’?

Unfortunately, I never got a straight answer as to what Facebook records, only a convoluted answer as to what Facebook would willingly share with third parties. After this experience, I became more concerned with personal privacy. Our situation isn’t getting any better.

The Facebook privacy policy also includes this little tidbit: “We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services, Facebook platform developers and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile. Where such information is used, we generally allow you to specify in your privacy settings that you do not want this to be done…” (emphasis added). Of course, this violates Facebook’s very own core principle: You should have control over your personal information. Maybe they should change this to ‘You should generally have control over your personal information’.

Facebook privacy concerns have also been raised by Maria Aspan of The New York Times, who pointed out just three months ago, “Facebook’s terms of use state that ‘you may remove your user content from the site at any time’, but also that ‘you acknowledge that the company may retain archived copies of your user content’.” Considering removing information from your profile so Facebook no longer has it? Too bad! They’ve already stored a copy and have started profiting from it.

Admittedly, Facebook is a great way to keep in contact with old friends, just so long as you don’t mind Zuckerberg making money off of your political allegiance and sexual orientation.

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