Consumer Report’s annual State of the Net study found that people are increasingly concerned with their privacy on Facebook. The report breaks down social privacy into a handful of categories: over-sharing by users, underuse of privacy controls, over-collection of data, over-sharing of data by apps and cyberbullying or harassment.
2,002 online households were surveyed, including 1,340 Facebook users. Based on those numbers, Consumer Reports extrapolated its results upon the rest of Facebook’s 188 million North American users.
The study raises alarms about Facebook’s privacy practices — but does the author do enough to back up his or her claims?
4.8 million Facebook users have posted their plans for the day on the site, according to the report’s extrapolation. Consumer Reports suggests that’s a potential tip-off for thieves who can use that information to plan a robbery.
The report was unclear about how many of those 4.8 million users set their location sharing to “friends only,” which would drastically reduce the threat of theft. Jeff Fox, technology editor at Consumer Reports, told Mashable that 10-15% of Facebook users set their sharing to “public,” rather than friends-only. That’s about 500,000 of those 4.8 million location-sharers.
Fox also pointed to a recent story of thieves who robbed a house using information shared on Facebook, but he couldn’t provide statistics indicating whether that’s a common occurrence or an isolated event.
Consumer Reports also said that Facebook users who publicly “like” a page about a disease, such as diabetes, may tip-off insurers who can then deny those users coverage. Fox was unable to cite statistics showing whether that actually happens, however.
Underuse of Privacy Controls
13 million users, says Consumer Reports, either haven’t set or don’t know about Facebook’s privacy tools. However, with 188 million users in the U.S. and Canada, that means more than 90% of users do change their privacy settings from the default.
Facebook has been responding to privacy concerns, albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction. It rolled out broad new privacy changes over the summer of last year.
Information about privacy settings is available on Facebook’s site. Users are expected to set their privacy protection to levels with which they feel comfortable and protected, but some privacy groups call for Facebook to deliver this information more directly and to make the default settings more secure.
Over-Collection of Data
Facebook “collects more data than you may imagine,” warns Consumer Reports, and that’s certainly true. The website keeps tabs on users’ activity both on and off the site, sometimes even if they’re not logged in. Facebook manages this via cookies that follow Internet users who visit sites that embed the ubiquitous “like” button on their pages — an ever-increasing number of websites.
Facebook has said that it uses this information to improve security, but privacy advocates warn that such information could potentially be sold to advertisers — which Facebook denies doing.
However, as Consumer Reports points out, Facebook is planning to release more of the data it stores about users, such as IP addresses and facial recognition patterns.
Over-Collection of Data
Consumer Reports‘ study argues that Facebook users often pay little attention to the permissions they give to third-party apps. All third-party apps on Facebook require users to “opt-in” by granting permission for an app to look at your news feed, update your status, and so on. It’s up to each individual user to pay attention to these permissions and decide if they should continue installing an app.
Some apps, warns the report, can look at users’ information even if they haven’t installed the app themselves. They do this, says Consumer Reports, by accessing information about users from their friends that have the app installed. Such a grab can be prevented through careful modification of privacy settings.
“Even if you have restricted your information to be seen by friends only, a friend who is using a Facebook app could allow your data to be transferred to a third party without your knowledge,” says the report.
Fox was unable to cite any examples of an app which performs this roundabout information grab.
Cyberbullying and Harassment
Consumer Reports says that “problems are on the rise” — 11% of households using Facebook had “trouble” last year, which ranges from a stranger using their login information to online harassment. The report highlights cyberbullying against children, claiming that 800,000 children under 13 had been “harassed or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on Facebook.”
The report didn’t give exact definitions of “trouble,” “harassment” or “cyberbullying.” Such cases could range from commonplace teasing to more extreme and dangerous forms of social rejection, and it’s impossible to know these details from this study. Fox wasn’t able to clarify the definitions used in Consumer Reports’ survey.
Facebook and Privacy
Consumer Reports’ study shows that privacy is an ever-increasing concern as Facebook and other social media become a more central part of everyday life. However, careful observation of the report raises more questions than it answers. Some observers, including journalist and Internet commentator Jeff Jarvis, label the report as “fear-mongering” that’s harmful to the public’s understanding of social networks.
“My fear is that such fear-mongering will lead to more regulation and a less open and free net,” wrote Jarvis on his blog. “Consumer Reports is not fulfilling its mission to protect us with this campaign. It will hurt us.”
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