Facebook has been rolling out new privacy settings in the past 24 hours along with a “privacy transition” tool that is supposed to help users update their settings. Ostensibly, Facebook’s changes are the result of pressure from the Canadian privacy commissioner, and in Facebook’s own words the changes are meant to be “new tools to control your experience.” The changes have been harshly criticized in a number of high-profile places: the New York Times, Wired, Cnet, TechCrunch, Valleywag, ReadWriteWeb, and by the the EFF and the ACLU. The ACLU has the most detailed technical summary of changes, essentially there are more granular controls but many more things will default to “open to everyone.” It’s most telling to check the blogs used by Facebook developers and marketers with a business interest in the matter. Their take is simple: a lot more information is about to be shared and developers need to find out how to use it.
The most discussed issue is the automatic change to more open-settings, which will lead to privacy breaches of the socially-awkward variety, as users will accidentally post something that the wrong person can read. This will assuredly happen more frequently as a direct result of these changes, even though Facebook is trying to force users to read about the new settings, it’s a safe bet that users won’t read any of it. Many people learn how Facebook works by experience, they expect it to keep working that way and it’s a bad precedent to change that when it’s not necessary. The fact that Facebook’s “transition wizard” includes one column of radio buttons for “keep my old settings” and a pre-selected column for “switch to the new settings Facebook wants me to have” shows that either they don’t get it or they really don’t respect their users. Most of this isn’t surprising though: I wrote in June that Facebook would be automatically changing user settings to be more open, TechCrunch also saw this coming in July.
There’s a much more surprising bit which has been mostly overlooked-it’s now impossible for any user to hide their friend list from being globally viewable to the Internet at large. Facebook has a few shameful cop-out statements about this, stating that you can remove it from your default profile view if you wish, but since (in their opinion) it’s “publicly available information” you can’t hide it from people who really want to see it. It has never worked this way previously, as hiding one’s friend list was always an option, and there have been many research papers, including a few by me and colleagues in Cambridge, concluding that the social graph is actually the most important information to keep private. The threats here are more fundamental and dangerous-unexpected inference of sensitive information, cross-network de-anonymisation, socially targeted phishing and scams.
It’s incredibly disappointing to see Facebook ignoring a growing body of scientific evidence and putting its social graph up for grabs. It will likely be completely crawled fairly soon by professional data aggregators, and probably by enterprising researchers soon after. The social graph is powerful view into who we are—Mark Zuckerberg said so himself—and it’s a sad day to see Facebook cynically telling us we can’t decide for ourselves whether or not to share it.
UPDATE 2009-12-11: Less than 12 hours after publishing this post, Facebook backed down citing criticism and made it possible to hide one’s friend list. They’ve done this in a laughably ham-handed way, as friend-list visibility is now all-or-nothing while you can set complex ACLs on most other profile items. It’s still bizarre that they’ve messed with this at all, for years the default was in fact to only show your friend list to other friends. One can only conclude that they really want all users sharing their friend list, while trying to appear privacy-concerned: this is precisely the “privacy communication game” which Sören Preibusch and I wrote of in June. This remains an ignoble moment for Facebook-the social graph will still become mostly public as they’ll be changing overnight the visibility of hundreds of millions of users’ friends lists who don’t find this well-hidden opt-out.