Quasi-secrets: Public vs private information at Facebook

The recent debacle over Facebook “News Feed” feature once again demonstrates the large gray-area of information that is neither public nor private. In this case the Facebook designers added a feature that updates users about their friends’ recent activities. On the face of it, this is a simple change: users can only see activity for their friends– information they already have access to. The only difference is delivery model; instead of having to “pull” the information by visiting each friend’s page, it is now delivered to you in the fashionable “push” model that was a great success when applied to blogs/RSS feeds.

Reaction was instant and swift, as described in this CNet article and slew of other coverage including ABC. The fact that no new information is made available to users and only the access mode is different was apparently lost on the critics. In a response posted on the website, Facebook founder emphasized this point:

“The privacy rules haven’t changed. None of your information is visible to anyone who couldn’t see it before the changes.”

This is not the first time that a disruptive change in the way information can be searched/accessed has changed its classification from being “private” to “public,” even when it was public to start with. Google experienced similar phenomenon when it supported reverse telephone record look-ups, mapping the number NNN-NNN-NNNN back to an individual and even home address. If this is creepy, then so is the plain old phone book. Granted the phone-book indexes by name and only allows one-way look ups; given name you can look up the number, but not the other way around. But in principle one could search every single page to locate the number. And for an 10 digit number in the US that expensive process would have to be repeated for every phone book from every region. That prohibitive cost creates the illusion that the information was private in the first place. Replace monkeys flipping through white-book pages with a database, and the same query can be executed in a fraction of a second. Same data-set, different implementation and you have a privacy nightmare. Another example: the majority of court records are public. Anybody willing to spend some time digging through dusty archives in the basement of the county court house could dig up juicy information on residents’ life. (No doubt this useful feature has created a livelihood for private investigators.) That availability has not worried many people, until some cities proposed to place the same information online, free for indexing by search engines.

Facebook discovered its own variant of “quasi-secrets:” information that is public if you know where to look and the resources to retrieve it. The scarcity of individuals with know-how and determination to access it created the sense of privacy. A novice developer could write a few lines of code to monitor the activities of his/her friends on Facebook. Yet when the website itself provides that functionality and makes it readily available to anybody, users cry foul.


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