Facebook users willingly giving up right to privacy

By Tyler Davis

We’ve all heard the legend of how Facebook started. A young, drunk Mark Zuckerberg created a website in 2003 on which students could rate the hotness of their peers based on photos that weren’t quite public. Fast forward totoday, and Zuckerberg has made billions of dollars from exploiting people’s information.

The thing to remember about Facebook, or anything mostly funded by advertising, is that we are a product, not a consumer. Facebook makes its money by selling highly targeted ads based on our personal information, and the amount of user data the website keeps on record is staggering.

Facebook is not legally required to release this data to residents of the U.S. and Canada, so it doesn’t. Users can request a personal data file through the website’s account settings, but the download only provides a list of things that appear on a user’s profile and a log of recent sessions.

Facebook users outside the U.S. and Canada can go through Facebook in Ireland, a subsidiary of the company that must comply with the European Union’s privacy laws, to request  complete data files, which have been reported to

run about 1,000 pages for some users, according to Europe vs. Facebook, an organization that confronts the website about its data collection.

Facebook stores most information you put onto the site, including anything you have deleted. Deleting something on Facebook removes it from the front end of the website, but depending on what type of content it is, it will most likely be stored on the website’s servers. For example, it keeps every message you have ever sent, and deleting a message simply removes it from the actual website. It is then categorized and stored as a deleted message.

The website also keeps information that can be used to determine your location, such as which computers and networks you use to log on to Facebook, according to its Data Use policy. It even stores your photos’ metadata, which is a hidden part of a photo file that sometimes contains the time and location the photo was taken, depending on the camera. There seems to be no legitimate reason to keep much of this information.

Facebook also collects data that others share about you, which can include contact information that has been imported from users’ email accounts or phones. Even if you were to use the website’s privacy settings to protect yourself, it can still collect your information from others.

“For information others share about you, they control how it is shared,” the Facebook Data Use policy states.

Europe vs. Facebook alleges that the company builds “shadow profiles” of people who don’t use the website with data collected from users who have imported contacts from email and instant messaging. The Facebook page that people can use to request data even gives the option to do so if you don’t have a Facebook profile.

Law enforcement agencies are pushing for more access to personal data gathered on websites like Facebook. The FBI has asked Congress to amend laws on wiretapping and social networks and has requested that email providers make their services more accessible to law enforcement agencies, according to a Sept. 22 article on technology blog CNET.com. The agency claims that criminals increasingly use social networks to communicate, which makes them harder to track.

This law would mean that every Facebook message you have ever sent, as well as data that can be used to determine your location, could be easily accessed by police, the FBI and a number of other government agencies. Your Facebook page could be turned into an official record of your activities and personal communications.

In theory, law enforcement would only be able to access your information with a warrant, but this isn’t always the case with telephone wiretapping. A report released by the Department of Justice in 2010 detailed the flouting of legal process at a facility where FBI analysts worked alongside Telecom employees. In many cases, the FBI requested phone records through emails or even Post-It notes with phone numbers on them left on Telecom workers’ desks. Intelligence analysts sought legal approval for the intelligence gathering only after obtaining information, but sometimes not at all.

Even if enforcement agencies don’t get carte blanche to access our information, Facebook’s servers aren’t impenetrable, and the company even admits that your information isn’t safe on its website.  In a section of Facebook’s Terms of Service—the only section in all caps—the company warns, “WE DO NOT GUARANTEE THAT FACEBOOK WILL ALWAYS BE SAFE, SECURE OR ERROR FREE.”

As long as we are willing to give up our information, Facebook will collect it. Zuckerberg referred to public sharing as a new “social norm,” according to a Jan. 10, 2010, CNET.com article. If we don’t tell Facebook that it is violating our privacy, it will continue to expand its data files.

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