Angela Cho admits she’s more concerned about finding out what her friends are up to than fiddling with her privacy settings when she signs in to Facebook. But the 25-year-old communication student at Simon Fraser University says on-line privacy became more important to her after strange links appeared on her Facebook wall.
“Right after the hacking thing happened, I immediately changed the settings,” Cho told the Georgia Straight in an interview at a downtown Vancouver café.
When Cho took a closer look at her Facebook preferences, she realized how many people had access to her life through the Internet. That hit home when a friend of a friend tried to talk to her in person about her status updates.
“I felt a little awkward about it, actually,” Cho said. “Sometimes Facebook is really convenient, but sometimes I don’t want to open up all my information to random people.”
Cho’s concerns aren’t unique. Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, has been investigating social-media sites and their privacy policies for the past few years as the popularity of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare has grown.
Officials at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada have taken a keen interest in Facebook’s privacy practices. In response to complaints, the office conducted two investigations of the social-networking giant. Officials gave Facebook a deadline of September 1 of this year to make its privacy settings less complicated and easier for users to understand.
These settings cover not just the standard Facebook features, such as news feeds and photo albums, but also the hundreds of thousands of applications run through the site, including popular games like FarmVille and Pet Society.
B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner argues that users should be able to control what kind of personal data becomes a part of the public domain.
“A lot of people just click through the terms of service and say, ”˜Yes, I agree to this’ and ”˜I agree to that’ without actually reading the details,” Elizabeth Denham told the Straight by phone from Victoria.
Before she took on her provincial post in May, Denham was Canada’s assistant privacy commissioner, leading the federal office’s probes into Facebook’s privacy policies.
Denham sees two obvious problems with how social-networking sites lay out their privacy policies. The first lies in the language that the sites use. She says complex legal phrases can be employed to confuse users in order to gain access to their information. The other problem comes when companies make it a technological challenge to change privacy settings.
“Their business model is about data mining,” Denham said. “It’s about advertising. It’s about collecting information.”¦There is a lot of power for advertisers in the amount of personal information that is available on-line.”
Still, Facebook asserts that it’s been a leader in terms of privacy protection.
“People do not come to Facebook to hide,” Debbie Frost, Facebook’s director of communications and public policy, told the Straight by phone from Tokyo. “They want to share information with people and with their friends, but they want to be able to control who those people are.”
According to Frost, over the past year, a team of software engineers at Facebook has been working to ensure that privacy settings are easy to understand and change for their 500 million users.
“We reduced the number of settings that are required to make all information private from nearly 50 to less than 15,” Frost said. “So we went from quite a complex sense of control to 15 really simple ones.”
Frost asserted that the Palo Alto, California–based company fixed the privacy problems identified by Canada’s privacy commissioner weeks ahead of the September deadline. (The company was given a year to complete the task.)
“We feel, like anything with privacy and particularly the Internet, everything’s moving really fast,” Frost said. “We’ve actually made additional changes to privacy controls that weren’t included in the OPC’s recommendations and were not subject to our discussions with them, but have actually offered more control.
“You can pretty much make everything private now except for a couple of fields, which allow people to find their friends,” Frost added.
Facebook is making it easier to find your friends in the real world with a new location-based feature called Places. Launched in the U.S. on August 18, Places lets users take advantage of the GPS technology in many smartphones to post their location on-line, as Foursquare and Twitter already do.
That worries B.C.’s privacy commissioner. Denham is concerned that people are becoming more complacent about revealing their personal information on-line as geolocation services and geotagging increase in popularity.
“The issue with location-based data is that it really exposes a whole other layer of personal information,” Denham said. “I don’t think users have thought deeply about what it means to use geolocation services.”
Const. Anne Longley, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, warned that posting your location on-line can make you more vulnerable to criminal activity.
“Criminals keep up with the technology and up with information,” Longley told the Straight by phone. “They will use it to their advantage. So you have to keep on top of your own security—not just at home, but what you’re putting out on the Internet as well.”
According to Longley, the police force hasn’t traced any crimes to location-based data posted on social-media sites.
Denham said she understands that people are living more of their lives on the Internet these days.
“People are very interested in making social connections through social media,” Denham said. “We get it. We understand it. We appreciate it. But we are concerned that people don’t understand the risks of putting too much personal information on-line.”