How I got groped by Facebook

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I’m not taking an axe to my computer or anything, but every day I am more and more disturbed by the infinite ways the ‘social networking’ revolution is changing the way we interact with the world. Or, more importantly, the way corporations interact with us, in an age when data aggregators and math whizzes can figure out just about anything (even your social security number) with the vast amount of information that’s being collected about every move we make in the real world and in cyberspace.

Facebook is near the top of my cringe list. But I know I can’t stay totally off the grid. When Consumer Watchdog launched our Facebook fan page, I wanted to be able to update it with news and thoughts from the frontlines here in DC.  Trouble was, to use the fan page I had to join Facebook.

I don’t want to be on Facebook personally. Aside from all the social drama that deciding whether to accept, ignore, or block a friend request apparently entails, what I really don’t want is for Facebook to be able to collect information about me, mash it with data it collects about everyone I know, and draw conclusions, or share my profile, or sell me sunblock, with what they learn.

I created a professional identity to access only our fanpage, and set the privacy protections high – or so I thought.

Things worked fine for about six months, until Wednesday, when I logged into the account to find Facebook suggesting that I ‘friend’ all my real friends! How did Facebook figure out who I know offline?? I don’t use my real name, so my friends didn’t find me on their own. And although I’m tied to the Consumer Watchdog page, it wasn’t suggesting I ‘friend’ work acquaintances, or fans of the page. Facebook had reached into the ether and plucked out the names of my in-the-flesh social network. This freaked me out – and made me angry that it’s apparently impossible to have a work-only persona on Facebook.

I wasn’t really incognito after all. I had to figure out how Facebook made those connections. First off, Facebook requires an email address to set up an account. So even though I told it to only let friends see my information – and I figured since I didn’t add any friends that meant no one would see anything – that didn’t hide my information from Facebook.

Then there are Facebook’s labyrinthine
privacy settings. They made big changes just a few months ago that were supposed to ‘simplify’ things. You would think that meant there’d be an easy one-button solution to affirmatively keep all my information private. Not a chance. A click on the ‘privacy settings’ link gave me four categories of information that Facebook collects – profile, contacts, applications, and search. Each of those has a bunch of subcategories. So in the profile settings alone I had to click through ten different items – from birthday to photos – and make each one non-public. Even then, Facebook makes it look like you can’t make them all private. The birthday privacy menu, for instance, suggests showing it to ‘only friends’ as the most ‘protective’ setting. You have to dig like a mole into ‘customized settings’ to find out that, if you try really hard, Facebook will let you set your birthday so ‘only me’ can see. This was way too tricky, and a lot of work, when Facebook was supposedly letting me choose my level of privacy.

So Facebook had my email, and it looked like I hadn’t foraged far enough into their privacy settings to really protect my information. But the real ‘mystery’ – why all of a sudden the friend suggestions were happening now – wasn’t something that I’d done at all. Here’s the first thing on the home page when I open my account:


Facebook had the great idea to ask everyone for the thumbs up to cull through their email address books looking for addresses in the Facebook system, to find new ways to ping people and map every possible connection between existing users. I wonder if my friends knew that they were signing up everyone in their address book for an anonymous Facebook groping?

Of course, I haven’t accepted any of these people as friends, or even clicked through to their picture. So does it really matter in the end that Facebook told me my friends were there too? Yes, because I will put money on the probability that Facebook tracks the connections it’s made, whether I acknowledge them or not.

I’m sure some people will think I’m overreacting, and remind me that the point of Facebook is making connections. I made the connection I wanted – with the Consumer Watchdog fan page. But I should have been able to end it there. Facebook decided it wants more.

Even though I have now changed every privacy setting on the account to ‘Only Me,’ Facebook continues to ‘suggest’ I add those friends. It looks like my email address, and the fact that I am in other peoples’ personal email address books, means Facebook gets to burn those connections in stone. It’s the easiest thing in the world to connect that email with my real name. I could start seeing a lot of ads for cheap flights to Los Angeles. Not a big deal. But what if they also decide those connections make me look like a cancer survivor with a bad credit score? That kind of information could lose me insurance or increase the rates on my car loan. Perhaps none of these things will happen. But there are no effective rules about how Facebook can collect, hold, or use this information. They can combine it with information from all the other data aggregators out there and the possibilities are practically limitless.   

Which is why Consumer Watchdog is pushing for some real privacy standards to give consumers control over their own information. And a big part of why I didn’t want to join Facebook in the first place. I’ll never know what they know, what they’ve ‘deduced,’ or what they’re doing with the information they glean from my not-so-private Facebook account.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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