Privacy, social networks, and our online selves

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Two interesting discussions of personal privacy and online social networks.

First, this article about the permanence of online information and its implications for an individual’s reputation: “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” by Jeffrey Rosen, New York Times Magazine.

We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent – and public – digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts.

Second, a presentation about designing online networks: “The Real Life Social Network v2,” by Paul Adams. This is intended for designers of web properties, but I believe there’s value here for any organization that’s working to create an online community, including for customer interactions or referrals.

Six degrees of separation and your privacy settings

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Related to my post yesterday about Facebook’s privacy settings: danah boyd posted in more detail about the implications of Facebooks privacy (“Facebook and ‘radical transparency’“). These two paragraphs convey the problem I often see in which people haven’t thought through the implications of the “network” part of social networks:

A while back, I was talking with a teenage girl about her privacy
settings and noticed that she had made lots of content available to
friends-of-friends. I asked her if she made her content available to
her mother. She responded with, “of course not!” I had noticed that
she had listed her aunt as a friend of hers and so I surfed with her to
her aunt’s page and pointed out that her mother was a friend of her
aunt, thus a friend-of-a-friend. She was horrified. It had never
dawned on her that her mother might be included in that grouping.

Over and over again, I find that people’s mental model of who can see
what doesn’t match up with reality. People think “everyone” includes
everyone who searches for them on Facebook. They never imagine that
“everyone” includes every third party sucking up data for goddess only
knows what purpose. They think that if they lock down everything in the
settings that they see, that they’re completely locked down. They
don’t get that their friends lists, interests, likes, primary photo,
affiliations, and other content is publicly accessible.

danah’s full post is well worth your time.

How to simplify your privacy on Facebook (and everywhere else on the web)

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How to navigate Facebook Privacy Settings, from the New York Times
How to navigate Facebook Privacy Settings, from the New York Times

Yesterday the New York Times made a noble attempt to map Facebook’s new, super-complicated privacy settings, via a few well-designed graphics and an accompanying article (“The Price of Facebook Privacy? Start Clicking,” by Nick Bilton, 5/12/2010).

The new opt-out settings certainly are complex. Facebook users who hope to make their personal information private should be prepared to spend a lot of time pressing a lot of buttons. To opt out of full disclosure of most information, it is necessary to click through more than 50 privacy buttons, which then require choosing among a total of more than 170 options.

Users must decide if they want only friends, friends of friends, everyone on Facebook, or a customized list of people to see things like their birthdays or their most recent photos. To keep information as private as possible, users must select “only friends” or “only me” from the pull-down options for all the choices in the privacy settings, and must uncheck boxes that say information will be shared across the Web.

If you have a Facebook account, it’s worth taking a few minutes to understand what information is being shared with other members of the site, whether they’re your friends or the general public.

But the most important rule about privacy online still stands: If you have information that you want to keep private, do not put it online.

This applies to explicit information like data, photos, and video, and also to implicit data like your connections — who you know or have worked for, for example. It applies to your thoughts and opinions, including likes and dislikes.

Keep in mind that sending an email is a means of putting information online. Once it’s sent, you have no control over where it ends up.

“Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity” by danah boyd

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For an excellent overview of the concepts and issues surrounding online privacy and publicity, check out danah boyd’s keynote speech from SXSWi for 2010.

Just because a large percentage of people engage in public does not mean that they don’t care about privacy. Pew found that 85% of adults want to control who has access to their personal information. You can read numbers in any which direction, but it’s dangerous to assume that people who share PII don’t care about privacy or people who make their data public don’t care about privacy. Doing so erases the context in which people are operating and the expectations that they have.

Wanting privacy is not about needing something to hide. It’s about wanting to maintain control. Often, privacy isn’t about hiding; it’s about creating space to open up. If you remember that privacy is about maintaining a sense of control, you can understand why Privacy is Not Dead. There are good reasons to engage in public; there always have been. But wanting to be in public doesn’t mean wanting to lose control.

Of particular note, see her analyses of why the launch of Google Buzz generated so much strong backlash, why people were uncomfortable when Facebook changed its privacy features in December 2009, and what’s interesting about ChatRoulette.

Photo credit: “Fingerprints” by kevindooley on Flickr

Google’s new interest-based advertising: what it means for consumers

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Google is adding a new kind of advertising to its ad network: Interest-Based Advertising, also sometimes known as “behavioral targeting.”

Other companies like Yahoo and AOL already offer similar systems. Google says that advertisers have been requesting interest-based ads for some time, and that this system allows advertisers to more effectively target people who want the items and services offered in ads.

It’s true that behavioral targeting means that ads are shown only to those who have demonstrated interest and are therefore more likely to buy. As an advertiser it’s good to know how this system works. I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

At the same time that behavioral ads are likely to be more effective, they also raise concerns about privacy and user control. Google acknowledges these concerns on its official blog, and attempts to address them:

This kind of tailored advertising does raise questions about user choice and privacy, questions the whole online ad industry has a responsibility to answer. Many companies already provide interest-based advertising and they address these issues in different ways. For our part, we’re launching interest-based advertising with three important features that demonstrate our commitment to transparency and user choice.

  • Transparency – We already clearly label most of the ads provided by Google on the AdSense partner network and on YouTube. You can click on the labels to get more information about how we serve ads, and the information we use to show you ads. This year we will expand the range of ad formats and publishers that display labels that provide a way to learn more and make choices about Google’s ad serving.
  • Choice – We have built a tool called Ads Preferences Manager, which lets you view, delete, or add interest categories associated with your browser so that you can receive ads that are more interesting to you.
  • Control – You can always opt out of the advertising cookie for the AdSense partner network here. To make sure that your opt-out decision is respected (and isn’t deleted if you clear the cookies from your browser), we have designed a plug-in for your browser that maintains your opt-out choice.

To find out more about what Google is doing in this important area, please visit our Public Policy blog and Privacy Center.

These are pretty reasonable options. Scott Gilbertson of Wired points out that they are not ideal, and that the whole thing is pretty intrusive:

In short, Google plans to track your online moves and build a collection of “interests” based on which websites you visit. For example, if you start your day on the Major League Baseball homepage everyday, Google will know that you’re more likely to respond to ads for baseball paraphernalia.

Along similar lines are the “previous interaction” ads that will allow Google to show ads based on demonstrated behaviors. For example, if you put a shiny new Nikon D700 in your shopping cart, but never actually purchase it, Google will offer advertisers a way to place ads for the D700. Think of it as a way of constantly reminding you of the things you’re lusting after.

In a perfect world Google’s new ad system would be opt-in. Unfortunately in our world it’s opt-out, perhaps not ideal, but at least you can turn it off.

Don’t expect it to be easy to opt out though. Google is using a cookie to turn off the tracking, which means you’ll need to opt out on each and every PC you use and every browser you use on those PCs. Worse, should you ever delete Google’s opt-out cookie, you’ll need to opt out again…

As a consumer and user of the internet, you now need to decide whether it’s OK for Google to keep track of what you see and do online and to show you ads based on it. If you choose “yes,” then you’ll start to see ads that are more applicable to you, and a big pile of information will be stored.

If you’re using a loyalty card to get discounts at your local grocer, like Giant Eagle’s Advantage Card, you’ve already made that decision elsewhere. If you share a computer with others and you don’t each log in separately, your collected information will be based on the pages that all of you visit.

If you choose “no,” then you’ll continue to see ads based only on the search words you just typed or the content of the page you’re currently visiting. They might be less useful to you.

But most importantly, keep in mind that if you do nothing, you’ve effectively chosen “yes.”

Photo credit: “Spy Cam” by PhoebeJ