There has been lots of hubbub about Facebook’s new OpenGraph protocol over the last few weeks, and as one might expect, the privacy advocates jumped on Facebook as soon as it was announced. However from a developers perspective, the OpenGraph API is great (despite the lack of documentation).
They have a point however, the privacy settings in Facebook are very confusing and convoluted, if you don’t know where to look or what to look for it is almost impossible to know what data is being shared, let alone lock it down. The average user wouldn’t know where to start, putting all the settings on one page would be a step in the right direction, instead of scattering them all around the place.
And of course, the issue of the “default” is a very important one, people that didn’t change the default settings should never have been made public simply due to lack of knowledge. An open profile should be opt in, not opt out.
One of the key things that many articles and comments I’ve seen about the new protocol is that the “Instant Personalisation” feature (which is on by default) is the worst thing since the last bad thing Facebook did. What many of them forget to mention is that these sites can only access your public information – that is, the information that is set to “Everyone” in your Facebook Privacy Settings.
Recommendations to turn off the Instant Personalisation feature doesn’t really solve the wider issue – turn it off and you stop a handful of sites from accessing your information, but leave millions of other applications and sites to access the same information freely, or put another way you’re stopping the fountain but leaving the waterfall.
But as worrying as the privacy concerns are – it pales in comparison to stories like the one posted on AllFacebook today titled Facebook Knows That Your Relationship Will End In A Week. The data described in the article wasn’t sourced from the OpenGraph API, nor is it anything to do with external developers or companies – it is from the data that Facebook collects internally.
“As the service’s engineers built more and more tools that could uncover such insights, Zuckerberg sometimes amused himself by conducting experiments. For instance, he concluded that by examining friend relationships and communications patterns he could determine with about 33 percent accuracy who a user was going to be in a relationship with a week from now. To deduce this he studied who was looking which profiles, who your friends were friends with, and who was newly single, among other indicators.” The Facebook Effect, Kirkpatrick.
The bigger discussion here is whether people should be posting so much personal information on Facebook in the first place, sure it’s good to chat to your friends, share photos, but do you really need to put your home address? Phone number? And if you do, are you really that worried about your privacy? With the level of data warehousing and data mining described in the article, the issue of public vs private isn’t just about what the API allows developers to do, it’s also about what the terms and conditions say Facebook are allowed to do and as more and more people post ever increasing amounts of personal information the less privacy there will be, But no one is being forced to join or share the information, one of the main problems is telling users when to stop sharing.