Facebook is a cigarette, information is the nicotine, and you are the addict. And it is time to stop blaming Facebook if you get privacy cancer.
Years ago, after a long and drawn out fight, the tobacco industry was forced to put labels on their cigarette packs warning smokers that these nicotine delivery devices caused cancer, birth defects and premature death. The warnings did little to slow down sales of cigarettes, though they might have helped the tobacco companies avoid some costly lawsuits because, after all, they had clearly warned users about the dangers.
With the latest iteration of privacy settings being introduced this week on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg (or more likely the brilliant Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg) has discovered a similar truth - you are either too addicted to the information drug, or too indifferent to the privacy consequences, to care.
I applaud Facebook for giving users more visibility and a bit more control over how much personal information third party applications can access. They deserve credit for moving the application controls into the privacy section of the website, acknowledging, albeit quietly, that third-party data-mining is a significant source of non-consensual information leakage.
If Facebook would go one step further and demand that third-party apps give us a choice of how much information is shared, along with letting us know how much of our personal information is being shared through the apps that our friends install, we information survivalists would be that much happier. For example, even if you don't allow your third-party apps to share personal information, your friends' third-party apps could be sharing it anyway. But as it stands now, we would never know it.
The good news for Facebook privacy doesn't end there. Facebook has also redesigned the Groups feature, which theoretically gives you a greater level of control over subsets of friends and how much information they can access. For example, you could choose to share your vacation pictures with family and close friends, but not with co-workers who thought you were out sick. Dishonesty aside, group differentiation makes communication within your social network much more like that of the real world - acknowledging that you don't share all things with all people equally.
Here's where the news gets really good for Facebook - they have done their job (or at least have taken steps in the right privacy direction), and they can still bank on you ignoring the very controls they have given you! Sure, those of us who write about social networking professionally will make the changes, but ninety-nine percent of the people who read this article will do nothing with the knowledge. This claim isn't grounded in bitter cynicism, but statistical fact. I hope that 500 million of you will prove me wrong. When the Facebook changes are live for everyone (they are in beta as I type), we'll put up a new video showing you how to make them.
Granted, Facebook hasn't done everything they should do to make THEIR use of OUR data completely transparent to US; but most of US have done nothing to utilize the tools THEY already built to protect OUR privacy anyway, so the point is mute. Facebook is banking billions on our indifference and inaction.
Facebook executives should roll this strategy out to its logical conclusion: give all of us privacy professionals (the Electronic Frontier Foundation, EPIC, the World Privacy Forum, me) exactly what we want, because your Facebook addicts are already too high on info-voyerism to kick the habit. Your product is too good and too necessary to too many people to be hindered by a bit more transparency and a little more control. You have nothing to lose but our complaints.
John Sileo, of http://www.sileo.com, speaks professionally about social media exposure, identity theft and cyber crime for the Department of Defense, Fortune 1000 companies and any organization that wants to protect the profitability of their private information.