Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Facebook apps will eat your children

Hi, everyone. Yes, I'm still alive. I've been meaning to get back here and post for a while, but every time I thought of something I wanted to write about, it was like, really? That is what's making you break your (accidental) blog-silence after this long? So finally I figured, screw it, it's got to be something, may as well be this. So here, a post about, yes, Facebook.

So, ragging on Facebook for being a menace to people's privacy seems to have become the thing to do. To me, some of these complaints seem legit; others, not so much. But sometimes, things just aren't that big a deal. And furthermore, there comes a point when the fault is no longer Facebook's, and people need to take responsibility for their own online activity. I've seen a number of stories about this latest issue, but this Huffington Post article seems to give it a pretty good overview.

Readers Digest Condensed Version: popular apps like Farmville have been "leaking" their users' personally identifiable information to ad companies, namely their FB ID numbers.

And apparently, this is a HUGE PROBLEM. HUGE. Do you realize what potentially lethal information they get from this? They get - brace yourself - your name. Scary, right?

According to the EFF guy quoted in the article, "The problem is that ad companies can know who you are at all." But the thing is, well, they really don't. I mean, unless your name is Snotface McJingleheimer Hammerpants, your name probably isn't that memorable to most people. A lot of times, it's not even a uniquely identifying feature. Try it - search for "Andrea Johnston" on Facebook. I'm not by a long shot the only one that comes up. I know three different people named Sarah Williams. Even my mother's name, which is relatively unique, comes up with more than one hit on Facebook. Names are not as unique as people think. If you do have a fairly unique name and you're particularly worried about it, you can even change your Facebook name; I know people that go by first name + last initial, first name + middle name, or even their D&D character names. There's no reason you have to use your complete, real name.

And even if you do, that's still all they are guaranteed to get. If they get anything else, it's your fault.

Now, I realize there have been complaints about how complicated Facebook's privacy controls are, but the current configuration, if you actually look at the page and read through your options, is really not that difficult. I stand by what I said. As things currently stand, if you fuck up your Facebook privacy settings, it is not Facebook's fault. It is yours, because you didn't read the options, and therefore you didn't set up your privacy controls properly. If you can't read, you shouldn't be on the internet. If you can't take the time to understand what you're doing with your personal information, you shouldn't be on Facebook. It's as simple as that.

Everything on your profile, including information you put up, things you "like," and things you post, has the option to be visible to "Everyone," "Friends of Friends," "Friends Only," or some combination of people and/or friend lists that you can choose yourself.

Now, if you have some portion of your profile set so that "Everyone" can see it, then yes, that information will be available to anyone who navigates to your page, which would be possible with your FB ID number. Or by searching for you and clicking on your name. It's not hard.*

So what's a concerned citizen to do? Is there some arcane magic spell one must know to protect their information? Well, no, actually, it's much more simple than that. Just don't set anything to be visible to "Everyone." Then, voila, even if an ad company tries to get info from your page, or if some creeper manages to arrive there, all they can see is your name, gender, and profile pic. For even more caution, you can refuse to list your gender on your profile (I did), and you can make your profile pic be something that's not your identifiable face. (Closeup of your left eye, picture of your cat, snapshot of the Eiffel Tower from your trip to Paris - there are any number of options.) And as I said before, you can go by something that is not your real, complete name. Now, no one who is not friends with you, be it an ad company or an internet creeper, has access to any identifying information whatsoever about you. And all this can be completed in less than five minutes with a few clicks of your mouse.**

As far as applications go, there is also a page in your privacy settings specifically dedicated to them. Some apps require you to let them access certain parts of your profile; they tell you this when you add them, and you can choose to allow them access and use them, or just not use them. I can assure you, no Facebook app is that necessary. Others have optional settings that you can control, also from this page. This is also the page where the one legitimately creepy factor shows up: apps your friends use can see some of your information, whether you have added them or not. BUT, never fear, you also have control over this: in the "Info accessible through your friends" section, just uncheck every box, and then they can no longer see that info. I'll agree that the default setting should not be to share this info automatically, but if you actually read the updates, they do tell you when they add things like this. And as I said, it is very simple to just uncheck every box. Issue solved.

As to the larger issue, I'm not saying that Facebook is always blameless, and I'm not saying that it's not a greedy, money-hungry company looking to make dough off advertising to its users. But that is what the internet (and indeed, a lot of modern media) is all about. They (and their advertisers) aren't out to steal your identity, and it is in their best interest to make sure that people who are don't have access to your info. And if you properly set up your privacy settings, they won't have the required info to do so anyway. As the guy said at the end of the article, "the worst harm is that someone delivers to you a more targeted ad." And if you don't want that to happen, you can just do like I did and install adblock, and you'll never see ads on Facebook anyway.

tl;dr: Stop whining and take responsibility for your own information.

*Unless you've set your profile not to come up in searches, which you can also do without too much difficulty, from the "Privacy Settings" page.

**It will take longer if you go to the trouble of making friend lists and customizing each setting, but if you're in a hurry, it is very easy to just set everything to "Friends Only," and that will have you covered for a start. You can go back and change it later, if you so desire, when you've got more time to tweak things.