Facebook Privacy: One step forward, two steps back
Facebook this week unveiled new privacy tools, which make it easier for users to be more selective about how they share information. Although it has been possible to pick and choose who can see certain posts and images on Facebook for some time, the settings that allowed users to do so were not always obvious or were tucked away in the privacy settings.
While cynics might claim that the moves are merely a response to the success of Google+ with its more compartmentalized sharing structure, Facebook officials were quick to dismiss that notion. In an interview with The New York Times, Facebook’s vice president for product, Chris Cox, said that the new tools were meant to “demystify” Facebook’s privacy controls and make sure that users were never surprised by what others could see about them.
But the ability to be more selective about sharing was not the only change that was introduced this week. Buried two-thirds of the way down the blog post explaining the new privacy tools was the surprising announcement that you can now tag anyone on Facebook.
Previously, “tagging” – the act of adding an identifying name to a post or image – could only be done if you were friends with that person – a useful barrier to being tagged by a complete stranger. Now you can add tags of friends or anyone else on Facebook. Think about that for a moment: You can take a picture of anyone – neighbor, office-worker, friend or enemy – and post that picture to Facebook with an identifying tag. And they can do the same to you.
That picture could be taken by someone with a grudge; by someone looking to undermine you at work; or by an ex-boyfriend trying to embarrass you. All it takes is a compromising photo and someone with a score to settle. Before this change, potential taggers were restricted to your friends list. That list has now gone from a couple of hundred to 750 million.
Now, there are some protections. Facebook has finally introduced a “tag approval” mechanism. Before, any image or post that you were tagged in would automatically appear on your profile page, with the obvious potential for embarrassment if it was an image or post that you didn’t like. Now, you get to review and approve a tagged post before it appears on your page. However, keep in mind that the post or image will still appear on the “owner’s” page.
Also, anyone who is tagged in a photo or any other post can still remove that tag, but by then the damage might already be done. And remember, you can only remove a tag, not the post or the image itself. Again, that can only be done by the post’s owner.
There is one other thing to keep in mind as Facebook opens up tagging to everyone – and that’s facial recognition. Now, whenever you post a photo, Facebook uses facial recognition technology to match people in the photo to previously identified images and suggest tags for you to add.
Previously, Facebook was only using facial recognition to suggest tags for friends. There is no word on whether Facebook is planning on extending facial recognition, but it doesn’t take much imagination to realize what an incredibly powerful tool each Facebook user will have at their disposal if facial recognition can be applied across the entire Facebook universe.
There have been multiple reports on how social networks were used to identify individuals involved in the recent UK riots, and it’s easy to think of many other scenarios – both good and bad – where Facebook and other social networks could play a role in attaching a name to a previously unidentified face.
Clearly we are just at the beginning of a new era of using the web to gather more information about individual people than we could previously imagine. We can already see where you live (Google Earth), know where you hangout (Foursquare, Facebook, GPS tracking apps, etc.), and which web sites you like to look at (ad-serving networks). Soon we will be able to take a picture of you in the street – or a strip joint – and find out exactly who you are!
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