Facebook makes it easier than ever to eavesdrop

The new mini stream feature makes it simple to see what people are saying, even when they might not realize you're listening

Not content to let Google+ hog the spotlight the day of its grand opening, Facebook caught many users off-guard last night as it rolled out a host of changes without much in the way or warning or direction. What's evident is that Facebook and Google+ are pulling out all stops to win over social networkers of the world, though at least one of the changes to Facebook may have users scrambling to alter their privacy settings and friends lists.

The timing of Facebook's move was not necessarily too surprising: Zuckerberg and company correctly view Google+ as a threat to their platform's popularity, judging by the quantity and types of changes it has made since its rival's platform was born. What better way to retain attention on the day of Google+'s coming-of-age celebration than by setting off noisy fireworks outside?

What's concerning, though, is the nature of some of the changes that Facebook has made to counter Google+ in this matchup. At least one feature is almost certainly going to generate controversy: A new mini feed, combined with Facebook's new Subscription options, makes it disturbingly easy to effectively eavesdrop on fellow Facebook friends -- that is, to peer in on exchanges between your Facebook friends, both with mutual pals and people who are complete strangers to you. This should be of particular concern for all the Facebook users who use the site both to interact with real-life friends on a personal level, as well as family members, coworkers, and colleagues.

Facebook makes it easier than ever to eavesdrop

The new mini feed is, in and of itself, pretty cool and potentially useful. It appears in a small box to the right of your main stream and provides updates on actions your Facebook connections have taken that you might have missed. You can scroll through the mini feed and click on a notification, which gives you the ability to view the associated interaction more closely without having to abandon the page you're on.

This can be handy in that if can let you easily see what comments your connections have made about mutual friends' photos, links, and musings. You might also see that a mutual friend "likes" a band or celebrity you're into.

The troubling part is that with Facebook's new subscription features, you can subscribe to users' Likes and comments. By their nature, Likes and particularly comments can be fairly personal. They used to be relatively shrouded by tenuous privacy barriers, but now, they're extremely easy to follow.

Facebook makes it easier than ever to eavesdrop

For example, a Facebook connection who isn't really a close friend commented on one of his connection's photos; this second Facebook connection is a complete and total stranger to me. I saw his comment in my mini stream. I had no way of knowing exactly what he was talking about, so out of curiousity, I used the mini stream to get a closer look.

It turns out this stranger is a gay porn star and had posted a site to his X-rated website. This Facebook friend expressed some passing curiosity or interest. Suddenly I and anyone else on following (or subscribed to) this friend's feed knows or infers something about him he might not want to reveal.

This is an extreme example, but there are plenty of other exchanges you might have with a friend on their wall or in their photo album that you don't want everyone to see, such as off-color jokes or political comments. In short, any comment you make is potentially open to a new level of scrutiny by all of your peers and followers: casual acquaintances, family members, a boss, a co-worker, a business partner, your pastor. They won't need to pore over your personal Facebook page to find these nuggets. Rather, all those nuggets are presented to your Facebook friends in one convenient location.

Making matters worse, Facebook doesn't provide much in the way of evident guidance or functionality to keep these privacy barriers intact. You can't easily flip a switch, for example, to prevent a Facebook friend from subscribing to your comments or Likes. If you want to say something semi-private about a photo, you apparently need to make sure the person who posted that photo set it to private. If you want to Like something one of your Facebook contacts says or posts publically or want to express your fandom for, say, a musical group or performer or politician or, well, a porn site, they'll know so long as they are subscribed to your Likes.

Facebook is clearly trying to reinvent itself here. It's no longer just a haven for friends or colleagues to interact behind clearly defined walls. Now it's a place where anyone can follow what you're doing, what you're saying on your own wall, and what you're saying to your friends in previously hidden conversations. Whether or not this makes Facebook better, it certainly makes Facebook significantly different, and users have their work cut out to determine how to retain the privacy to which they've grown accustomed. 

This story, "Facebook makes it easier than ever to eavesdrop," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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