Privacy smoke-and-mirrors

Something to notice when Facebook, Myspace, and other social networking sites address concerns about privacy is the way they focus on users’ ability to control other users’ access to their information, but neglect to mention their own use of that information. When they enable users to set up different levels of access to parts of profiles and sets of photos for different groups of friends, categories of users, and the like, this is supposed to mean that they are progressive in terms of privacy issues, and that we should view them as our friends and see them as concerned about our interest in privacy.

It reminds me of something I overheard when I was temping at a software company in the Silicon Valley during library school. I was in the marketing department of a major software company that had just started adding a web services component to their main product. One of their tasks as marketing people was to make their customers feel secure about the privacy of their data (financial data). The inside joke was, “Oh, don’t worry! We will keep your private data safe; we won’t share it with anyone!” The joke being that they had a lot of uses for it themselves, but didn’t exactly want to highlight it. They laughed about this.

So if Facebook eventually allows users to set up concentric circles of friends with different privacy settings for each circle, remember that Facebook (meaning Facebook employees and perhaps key investors) is everyone’s most intimate confidante, and is open about “monetizing” user’s information, but not about how they go about doing it. (We don’t get to know any of its secrets – it’s not a reciprocal “friendship.”)

I would say that it’s worth pointing out this smoke-and-mirrors game whenever there is new PR from social networking companies about their privacy features….