Is Personal Data Safe on Facebook? No


A new study by Cambridge University professors shows that "undisclosed" private data that Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) might collect could be used to predict extremely sensitive information about members. Does Facebook use systems identical to those set by Cambridge experts? Probably not, but the social network almost certainly has related ones, whether its uses the information to make money or not.

It remains a constant wonder that privacy experts, researchers, the media and Facebook members for some reason believe the social network, and most other large Internet sites, do not collect reams of information about user behavior. Many of these Internet businesses do not sell the information to marketers, but the data most likely are used to improve site content, navigation and the introduction of features. The data collection might even be considered a benefit to users, to the extent that it betters how users benefit from the sites.

For every accusation that Facebook misuses data for purposes beyond member experience there are solutions. The New York Times recently ran an article about how Facebook users can protect their identities in the face of the social network's latest search features that could be co-opted by outsiders to track Facebook user habits. The paper went so far as to report about the new "personal vault" tool:

It can be scoured by police officers, partners and would-be employers. It can be mined by marketers to show tailored advertisements.

Still, Facebook has the data, no matter how much of the outside world has access to it. So, the data is almost certainly not "safe" from the social network itself. That is a risk that goes with the reward of the use of Facebook without fees or membership charges.

The most well-known public charge against Facebook collection of personal data can be found in the large settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over the issue. The agreement showed that Facebook had "deceived" its members about "telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public." Facebook likely still has access and does analysis about the same kind of information, even if it is no longer shared with the outside world. That does not mean the information is not used to allow marketers to narrowly target users, even if data on individual users remains hidden.

Privacy issues are the toll people pay to use a service with one billion members. Facebook would be a poorly run business if it did not use data about it members, to the extent it is legal and does not go over the line of its own privacy policies, which are too complicated for most users to decipher.

The Cambridge study offers nothing new.

Filed under: 24/7 Wall St. Wire, Internet, Research Tagged: FB, featured