Facebook Faces Privacy Issues
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Facebook, the world's most popular social networking site, is in trouble with some members of Congress for sharing users' personal information. Data mining is big business. Is it too late to stop it?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Do you know what's public and what's private on your Facebook profile? The hugely-popular internet social networking service has just introduced new privacy settings. But since Facebook is all about sharing information, how private can you get? Here to talk about the changes Facebook is making and the concept of privacy on the world wide web is my guest, Dr. Murray Jennix. He’s Information and Decision Systems professor at San Diego State University. Dr. Jennix, welcome.
DR. MURRAY JENNIX (Professor of Information and Decision Systems, San Diego State University): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. How much do you think you should share on the internet? Tell us if you think you’ve shared too much or if the privacy concerns are exaggerated. Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So, Dr. Jennix, let’s start with why Facebook is making these changes in its privacy setting in the first place. What were they doing that was making some people angry?
DR. JENNIX: Well, originally Facebook was formed to be a social network like you said. It was designed to be wide open. Their idea was is that you would post information about yourself on the web and anybody could look at it so that you could find friends who were like you. In essence, they were creating a small town experience on a global basis where your community might be all over the world rather than just in your local neighborhood. So they wanted it to be open so people could see who might be someone like them. Now, of course, with every innovation there’s always disruption, and their idea worked really good with college students and now you’ve got everybody trying to be on Facebook and, of course, they don’t have the same perception of being open that the Facebook creators thought they would have.
DR. JENNIX: So you got people my age getting on Facebook trying to reconnect to classmates from high school. And I think people – And I’m older, fifties plus. And people our age tend to be a little bit more private so, of course, we got on there and we started posting about ourselves and reconnecting. Then all of a sudden we discovered that this could be viewed by other people and it could be used by other people. And I think probably the last year I’ve seen the development of behavioral modeling as a way of analyzing risk. And we’ve seen employers starting to use Facebook as a way of doing background checks on people they’re hiring. So we’re seeing that the idea of Facebook has kind of morphed into something that the creators never really thought about.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And from my understanding, the privacy controls before this change used to be very complicated.
DR. JENNIX: Well, yes and no. Originally, they were very simple. You could make it visible or not visible.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Like Twitter.
DR. JENNIX: Like Twitter. But then they really thought about it and they said, well, some people want to show some stuff and other people want to show a lot of stuff, and they made it so that you could actually control it down to the very data piece. Well, for most people that’s more control than they ever dreamed they would need or want, so that’s why it became considered complex is that you actually had to go in and set all these settings. Plus, because the Facebook was designed to be open, they set everything to default to open rather than not share.
CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly, so, in other words, it is open unless you specifically say it’s not.
DR. JENNIX: Correct.
CAVANAUGH: And I think also one of the things that really got people upset this time around was the data that Facebook was selling, this instant personalization. Tell us about that.
DR. JENNIX: Well, Facebook is trying to make money just like every other website to support their operations, and the one thing they have is data about ourselves. And one of the things they’ve started doing is installing Facebook apps, little things on the website you go to to make it easier to track. So they’re trying to track what you do and where you go. Then, again, marketers and people who sell things like this data because it helps them tailor offerings to you as an individual. And, quite frankly, we can learn an awful lot about you just by seeing where you go on the web. Of course, then you add in the fact that on Facebook we post a lot about ourselves and you add that personal information and we can tailor it even more so to you as a person rather than as a group.
CAVANAUGH: So, for instance, if I buy something on amazon.com, the next time I go on there something similar will show up and say – they’ll say, you know, we thought you would like this. But with this instant personalization, somehow these companies are actually reading your Facebook postings and deciding which kind of music you’re going to like or when you go to their website, is that right?
DR. JENNIX: Right. We can read that information. If it’s visible, we can collect it.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
DR. JENNIX: There’s nothing illegal about that because we put it out there ourselves.
DR. JENNIX: So they can look at that and they can decide what music we might like and I think probably what’s getting people really upset is companies like credit card companies can also look at that data and see when you’re having a lifestyle change and use that to adjust risk or their perception of how you’re going to be as a payer on your bill.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
DR. JENNIX: That’s where really the…
DR. JENNIX: And the recession has brought a lot of this about and there’s been a lot of defaults. So if a credit card company can predict when you’re going to become a greater risk sooner, it’s going to save them money.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dr. Murray Jennix. He’s Information and Decision Systems professor at San Diego State University. We’re talking about the privacy changes that Facebook has initiated and the privacy concerns that remain, and we’re inviting you to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. So what are these changes that Facebook has announced now? How are they changing the settings and so forth to calm people if they are concerned about a credit card company reading their postings?
DR. JENNIX: Well, they’ve reinstated this global change where you can just mark everything at one shot that it can be private. Now I like that but at the same token I don’t like it. I’m on Facebook myself and I keep everything open because I, you know, I’m a professor and I have students wanting to look at me. I get requests to be friends all the time. And when somebody sends me a request and I go look at their page and it’s all private except to their friends, I won’t friend them.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see.
DR. JENNIX: So, to me, I get insulted when somebody hides stuff until I decide to be their friend.
CAVANAUGH: Well, how do you personally feel about this instant personalization, though, that it’s not just your access to other people but it’s other companies’ access to you.
DR. JENNIX: Well, I just accept it as a reality. It’s something that our society’s stuck with. I mean, we put data out, people are going to use data. And I guess I’m kind of a funny professor in that I teach both sides of the coin. I teach people how to be secure because I teach security, but I also teach people how to utilize this data to do better marketing. So, from my standpoint, to not be a hypocrite, I have to just assume that it’s going to be done. So from that standpoint, I modify my behavior to only post information that I’m willing to share.
CAVANAUGH: Who, then, has been concerned about this? You said that there was some maybe non-college students who were now on Facebook who were surprised about how much of their information is actually public unless they specifically choose to keep it private. But is it – I mean, is it government officials? Who specifically is objecting to the way that Facebook operates?
DR. JENNIX: It’s actually users. A group of users all of a sudden discovered that this was available information. And, again, this is something that I think caught Facebook by surprise. They assumed that users coming to their site would want to be open. They didn’t realize that some users were coming in there hoping to set up communities of just their friends and keep that private. That just wasn’t something they thought about. Now that’s a fault on Facebook’s part because, again, if you really thought about it, that’s not a surprise that people would do that. So you have privacy advocates who are upset about it. I think there are several celebrities and such who are upset about it because people can create pages for them and maintain them and then they get bombarded. And I think you have a lot of people over 30 who have had problems in the past with people getting information about them and these are people who are very sensitive to their data being out there.
CAVANAUGH: Which it kind of makes you wonder why they’re on Facebook to begin with.
DR. JENNIX: Well, other than that it’s a good way of keeping in contact with your friends and family. Actually, Facebook, if you think about it, is a great way to share photographs, you can post them. And so a lot of families, grandparents and parents and stuff post it right to Facebook so they don’t have to send them out by e-mail or…
DR. JENNIX: …to everybody else.
DR. JENNIX: And that is very convenient. But on the other hand, I don’t post pictures of my family because I don’t want that material out.
CAVANAUGH: I understand. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 if you’d like to join this conversation. Andrew is on the line from Rancho Santa Fe. Good morning, Andrew, and welcome to These Days.
ANDREW (Caller, Rancho Santa Fe): Good morning.
ANDREW: So, you know, when I think about this stuff, I – lately, I’ve been tending to think about how technology has really helped, you know, social mores develop and, you know, while people have private lives and tend to think that those private lives should be kept, you know, separate from other social interactions but, you know, in fact, social repression and, you know, other ways in which society tends to behave one way but say another thing and promote another thing, you know, those things are harder. They’re more difficult to occur in an open environment where information about yourself is available to everyone. And so, you know, I completely understand the desire to protect oneself but I also find that sites like this and technologies like this tend to have a positive overall effect on society because there’s no more hiding what’s actually out there.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you for that call, Andrew. And let me – We’re having a little problem with your headphones, Dr. Jennix, so let me tell you. Andrew was saying—and I’m going to have to really paraphrase here—that, you know, on the one hand this is a double-edged sword. If you’re going to want – if you want the kind of instant access and availability that a website like Facebook gives you then you’re going to have to take some – you’re going to have to take some hits when it comes to privacy.
DR. JENNIX: I totally agree. I mean, there really is no free lunch and to get a free service like this, you have to expect they’re going to collect in some manner. And usually the way they collect is through the collection of data.
CAVANAUGH: And let’s take a call now from Alex in Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, Alex. Welcome to These Days.
ALEX (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Thank you for taking my call. I was wondering if there is even a prior issue to the argument that there is privacy anymore. I mean, every search that you do on the Google is tracked and kept forever. Your credit card is kept forever. I mean you’re tracked by the way your cell phone – I mean, the cell phone companies know where you are. So pretty much even, you know, anything you do these days is, you know, searched and tracked and is out there for a price. So Facebook, I don’t know, they’re probably offering it at a cheaper price to their customers but, I mean, you could buy any kind of information out there. So, I don’t…
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. Thank you. So Alex says everybody’s doing it, why should we be concerned about Facebook?
CAVANAUGH: I want to remind everyone we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. This goes to – both of our callers have basically gone to this larger question: Should anyone on a social network have an expectation of privacy? Isn’t this really essentially a public forum?
DR. JENNIX: It is a public forum. And I’ll even go further, it’s not just on the social networking but on the internet in general. All internet communications are essentially public so you get on there, you are opening yourself up and you shouldn’t expect that it necessarily is private.
CAVANAUGH: And so the privacy concerns, the privacy settings, that, in a sense, is window dressing in your estimation?
DR. JENNIX: Not window dressing, it’s just a statement of letting people know what the site’s going to do with your information. I assume they’re going to use it. I like them to tell me what they’re going to do. If they’re going to collect it and sell it, that’s one thing. If they’re going to just use it for their own use to tailor the site to help me better, that’s a little different. And, again, it – I just want to know.
CAVANAUGH: Now there are many people who really don’t seem to care if their life is an open book. There are sites like Foursquare, they allow users to tell the world where they are basically all the time. So is that the trend, do you think? Is that just a split – is it a generational split or is it some people are always going to be more private than others?
DR. JENNIX: I, personally, think it’s more of an American trait in that American culture has always been open. We haven’t had anything really bad happen to us by people collecting data. And because of that, I think we are a much more open society, especially when you compare us to Europeans or Asians where, well, like the Holocaust. What enabled the Holocaust was a collection of data about the citizens. And what enables government control of the populations is a collection of data. That hasn’t happened here. And I think because of that, we are much more willing to put out stuff about ourselves.
CAVANAUGH: That’s very interesting. So what are the larger concerns that you might have or that exist about having so much information on one network like Facebook?
DR. JENNIX: Well, Facebook is a little bit different in that you can collect a lot of personal information. And, right, we’re very good at collecting transactional information about you just from following where you go on the web, how you use your credit card and that type of information, and we can do a very nice job of marketing you based on it. But now when you add in this personal character type stuff, information about yourself, we can really rachet down to the individual, what that individual’s likely to do. And we’re not there yet, we’re not doing that yet but I see that as the next step in marketing, is to really build this full profile because that’s really the holy grail for any marketer, is to get this almost total profile of you as a customer.
CAVANAUGH: And so you see that coming.
DR. JENNIX: I do see that coming.
CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about Facebook and the internet and the concept of privacy. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Dr. Murray Jennix, Information and Decision Systems professor at San Diego State, is my guest. Let’s take a call from Richard in Normal Heights. Good morning, Richard. Welcome to These Days.
RICHARD (Caller, Normal Heights): Good morning. How you doing?
CAVANAUGH: I’m doing great. Thanks for calling.
RICHARD: Yeah, it’s an interesting topic and it’s not something that really drove me insane about Facebook but what the professor said briefly, that we didn’t really – it wasn’t really clear all these things that Facebook was going to do with the information. And I just wanted to make a comment that for a person like me, Facebook is just such a good way to connect with my friends and my family, and that seems to be the obvious reason for Facebook, connecting with friends and family, not connecting with businesses and the entire world.
RICHARD: I do watch what I put on Facebook but I also use it to try to keep in touch with those relatives and people who I wouldn’t normally always have a connection with. So it has a place for people, and I think that your sort of laughing and dismissive attitude about people who have questions about privacy on Facebook is just ever so slightly offensive.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I – We’re terribly sorry. I don’t think we were doing that. I thought we were trying to examine…
RICHARD: You were constantly – whenever you would say, oh, these people would have… Well, why would they have common, you know, questions. You know, it wasn’t ever that people who don’t have any issues about privacy that that would be a silly thing.
CAVANAUGH: Well, ask a…
RICHARD: That’s the way it’s coming across.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, Richard, well, ask the question then the way you would like to ask it. What – why are you think – why do you think the privacy concerns are being dismissed?
RICHARD: Well, I think – I’m not sure why people aren’t concerned about privacy issues on Facebook just because of the whole concept that you select friends and choose to select family. So if you’re supposed to select your friends and family and give them access to you, isn’t that what you’re expecting? That all the information that you’re putting out there is basically connecting you to your friends and your family, not to businesses and other places, that because Facebook is trying to pay for itself, that’s how they connect. That’s not really…
RICHARD: …important to me.
CAVANAUGH: Right, gotcha. I understand your point.
RICHARD: It’s the connections to people on Facebook…
RICHARD: …that is important to me.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Richard. Yes, so Richard’s point being that, you know, everybody is not aware of the fact that this is marketed to businesses and that this isn’t just primarily and solely a way to keep in contact with your friends and family.
DR. JENNIX: Well, that’s true to a point in that many of your friends have small businesses. I think the nature of business in the U.S. is changing from large corporations to a lot more smaller, more personal businesses. And you may be friends with a real estate agent as a good friend but that doesn’t mean that real estate agent won’t use Facebook to find people like you or to connect you to a potential property if, in fact, you’re looking to buy a house or sell a house.
DR. JENNIX: It’s a way for them to expand their contact and their network and do a better job. And the same thing for a massage therapist or any of these smaller service oriented individuals who are also your friends. A lawyer, if I was looking for a lawyer, I’d pick one that was a friend to me because he would know me better and I would have more trust. And I think trust is really what you start talking about when you start talking about friends and your social network, is who is it you trust? And we’re putting out information to find people we can trust and the fact that these people also do business, it’s probably just logical to assume that this is going to tie together. There’s just no way to really separate being friends and having a business from any social network.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call from Alan in San Diego. Good morning, Alan. Welcome to These Days.
ALAN (Caller, San Diego): Hello.
ALAN: Yes, thank you for taking my call.
ALAN: Yeah, you know, actually I’ve been listening to the comments and I, you know, I’m hearing in between the lines that, really, individual users should tailor the privacy settings to how they want to be seen or not seen on Facebook.
CAVANAUGH: That’s pretty much what we’ve been saying, yes. Is that not what you’ve understood before now?
ALAN: No, I agree with that. I think that, you know, if you’re an individual who’s had problems in the past with the community or maybe you have friends that maybe have voted you or you think you’re being stalked, I think you probably want to tailor your settings so that you’re not found. And then other people who want to be found and viewed and enjoy when they look up their friends that they can see their profile before they add them, I think that those people are encouraged to leave their settings open. The only two points I want to make is I think that the fact that Facebook is now making the default setting private, I think that’s a good thing. I think that maybe there are some users out in the past that weren’t aware that they – as soon as they made a Facebook that they were immediately not – their settings weren’t blocked from being viewed. I think that the new ones, I think that – get that population out that didn’t know that they weren’t being – that they weren’t – their privacies weren’t set…
ALAN: …I think that now that having that as a default, I think that’s a safe thing and that’s probably why Facebook is making that change. So I kind of agree with it…
CAVANAUGH: Alan, I think we have to correct something that you’re saying here because that’s not quite the case.
DR. JENNIX: Correct. Facebook is not defaulting to private. They never intended to. They’re making it easier to set it to private but they always have defaulted open and that’s because their core mission was to open you up to the world so you could make more friends.
CAVANAUGH: So it’s easier to find – to select to be – opt out…
DR. JENNIX: Correct.
CAVANAUGH: …and make certain areas of your profile private.
DR. JENNIX: Correct.
CAVANAUGH: It’s easier to do that now but if you don’t do it, it’s still public.
DR. JENNIX: Correct.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, let’s hear from Rick in Mission Valley. Good morning, Rick. Welcome to These Days.
RICK (Caller, Mission Valley): Good morning. Given that Facebook has yet to establish a viable business plan leading to profitability what happens when and if they go belly up to all that accumulated private data?
DR. JENNIX: Great question. I don’t know anybody has an answer yet. Somebody will own it. I think one of the things to keep in mind is last week all the – a database of all the Tweets that were made in the first year of Twitter was donated to the Smithsonian. So if you’re – if people are wondering is everybody keeping – storing all this stuff, the answer is yes. Not just the profiles, the pictures and everything else but the conversations that go on. All that is being stored and at some point, if they go belly up or if they find a viable business model, something’s going to be done with that information.
CAVANAUGH: And hearing something like that, it makes you realize that sooner or later the government is probably going to step in and try to figure out some sort of rules and regulations for social networking but does that fill you with fear, the concept of something like that happening, Dr. Jennix?
DR. JENNIX: A little bit, it does. One of the things that was going on in Europe was a law that was going to require all internet service providers to store all transactions, all communications, for over a year, that were done. So there has been discussion of keeping track of everything and storing everything and making that available to be searched. Now the reason for that is primarily to prevent terrorist networks and criminal activity. But, again, there’s a thin line there, and that does concern me a little bit. That’s why I still only post what I’m willing to have visible rather than trust any technology or any system to protect my privacy.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Mike is calling from Mira Mesa. Good morning, Mike, and welcome to These Days.
MIKE (Caller, Mira Mesa): Yeah, thank you for having me. I think that one thing that I haven’t heard so far, maybe I just missed it, is that Facebook recently transitioned their fan pages to pages that you can like and they’ve spread that like throughout the internet. And that ability has really become the commodity that, I think, is prompting a lot of these privacy discussions because, you know, your circle of friends is not really a commodity that they can sell through marketers but once you start liking products, liking brands, liking celebrities and so on, now that’s a metric that they can go and sell. And I think that’s a really big thing to keep in mind if you’re trying to be private on Facebook is if anytime you click a ‘like’ button, whether it’s on Facebook, you know, on cnn.com or wherever you might go, that right there is basically what everybody’s talking about. They know about you now.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you.
MIKE: A circle of friends isn’t particularly worth owning.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Mike. I’ve seen that little ‘like’ tag.
DR. JENNIX: Right, and, really, that’s going to the power of crowds and the idea of tagging and this had become a very powerful tool in the last year in that we’re finding that products are made or broken based on public perception and that it’s much faster for people to identify stuff they liked than it is for a company to even respond if something’s wrong. So from a business standpoint, they don’t really like that unless you like them. Now I will disagree, though, that knowing your circle of friends doesn’t have a lot of business use. It actually does. It tells us who you know and because of who you know, that can help define risk. If you’re friends with a lot of people who have a good credit history, who pay their bills, who have certain character standards, that tells me a lot about you. And the fact that I know that these are your friends and that if you like something I could probably market them a very specific product would also be useful to me.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask a final question to you. There’s a group of Facebook users who pledged to quit Facebook next Monday on Memorial Day. It’s a movement that’s speared by people who are really very well versed in high tech. Is this something that’s – you’d think that has a potential to actually damage Facebook?
DR. JENNIX: Probably not. I think one of the concerns has been how does one quit Facebook? How do you delete a page? Facebook hasn’t been real eager to get rid of any page and there’s a very good reason for that in that that is the social network so if – Let’s say we’re friends through another individual and that individual quits, well, are we still friends? How do we create that link? And I don’t think I want Facebook to go automatically generating links just because they – somebody wants to quit. So I see that as probably the issue why they may quit using Facebook but I don’t think their page’ll go away. I think it’ll be still there in the background somewhere providing that linkage to the social network.
CAVANAUGH: They say that they want to quit Facebook and come up with their own social networking site called Diaspora, where they actually own their information. Offshoots like this, do you see more and more of that happening? Or are we going so far down the Facebook road now there’s no return?
DR. JENNIX: Well, we’re in a new age of cloud computing and what cloud computing is is where somebody else owns the technology, owns the storage space, and let’s you use it as a service. Now that said, even Diaspora will still have the problem that unless they own the servers themselves where they’re putting the data, they may have legal ownership of the data but still somebody else has got control over that data. And that’s the problem with Facebook, is that, okay, we put ourselves out on this cloud and somebody else maintains it for us. Well, there’s an expectation that they’re going to need something in return for doing it. And that’s the same way like if you have Google e-mail or Yahoo e-mail. They’re doing the same thing. There’s still an expectation that while they’re providing a good service, they’re going to get something in return.
CAVANAUGH: And these tweaks to the privacy settings on Facebook has also made other people aware of the fact Facebook can change its rules any time it wants to. You know, we don’t have any say in it.
DR. JENNIX: Any site can change their rules at any time.
DR. JENNIX: And all they have to do is tell you.
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And then what do you do?
DR. JENNIX: You have a choice then of either staying with them or following – changing your – what you’re going to post. And removing stuff that you don’t want visible.
CAVANAUGH: Except you can’t remove it.
DR. JENNIX: Well, you can remove pictures. You can’t necessarily remove your page but you could remove the things you posted or change the things you posted.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. Well, thank you for clearing so much up today. I appreciate it.
DR. JENNIX: No problem.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Murray Jennix. He’s Information and Decision Systems professor at San Diego State University. If you’d like to comment, if we didn’t get a chance to take your call on the air, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’ve been listening to These Days. Stay with us for hour two right here on KPBS.