How I learned to stop worrying about privacy and love Facebook

Is Facebook's popularity and reach big enough to convince the world that online privacy doesn't matter?

If Facebook's recent privacy issues are any indication, a world of people out there don't understand how this Internet thing works beyond the dimensions of their monitor. Sure, they get the fact that viruses and malware are bad, and identity theft is happening all over the place. But they don't comprehend how deeply their Internet usage is tracked and the level of detail they make available on a constant basis -- not a clue. And somehow, most of them don't care.

Think for a second of what Facebook knows about you. I can't say this for certain, but I think it's safe to assume that Facebook keeps everything you've ever typed into the site, whether or not you've subsequently deleted that information. If it was stored once, assume it's stored forever, even if it's no longer visible to you. This extends to photos you've untagged and anything else tied to your account.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Robert X. Cringely serves up five lessons Facebook needs to learn. | Et tu, Google? Google admits to Wi-Fi spying. ]

In addition, assume all your Facebook chats are saved and archived. Your IP address is stored for every action and every time you log in. If you're using a mobile app, your exact location may be logged, and if not, your IP address is used to locate you geographically. Cross-referencing all that information gives Facebook a surprisingly clear picture of exactly who you are. Facebook can probably build a very complete profile of users who fail to enter anything other than name, rank, and serial number; the usage patterns are enough.

Talk about manna from heaven for advertisers. To be able to say that the current viewer of a page is a 25-year-old blonde woman who lives with male and female roommates in San Jose, has free time in the evenings, and likes reggae music -- it's superb info for ad targeting. (Wait, how do they know she has roommates? They all log into Facebook from the same IP address and they're on each other's friend lists.)

It's not just Facebook ads that can use that information. Any site that's sufficiently integrated with Facebook laps it up as well, assuming the cookies are in the right place. Furthermore, the fact that you're visiting that site is noted. Facebook can track you all over the Web. This should worry Google tremendously. What Facebook has cooked up has the potential to unseat Google's ad empire, and soon.

But none of this is new. Websites have logged user activity since the Internet's infancy. Google knows plenty about you by your search habits, the contents of your Gmail mailbox, and data gathered by other Google tools. The difference here is twofold: Facebook's tendrils reach into a bunch of other mainstream Websites, and unlike Google, the company seems determined to expose personal information to anyone who cares to look.

There was never a question of whether this kind of intense tracking would be possible, only when and under what guise. Back when every Website was an island, the data gathered was basically isolated to that site rather than centralized. It was compartmentalized and less complete. Hidden in plain sight is the fact that, courtesy of 400 million users, Facebook has become the grand central repository.

There are a few apps you can use to pull data out of Facebook for easy manipulation. Give Me My Data, for example, allows you to export a variety of information from your Facebook profile, but it's information you already have access to, such as your friend connections. A data export that displayed all the information Facebook has collected on you and the methods it used to gather that data would be far more interesting. Hey, if Facebook is all fired up to expose as much information as possible, what reason would it have to keep that info from the light of day?

Unfortunately, technological reality dictates that there's no way to prevent this sort of data collection. If you use Facebook or any other Website, you're contributing that information no matter what. The code on the site just needs to collect and store it, so all the bellyaching in the world isn't going to change anything. Unless strict legislation curtails what information can be gathered and stored, and constant monitoring is instituted, Facebook and others can continue on their merry way.

You might expect that there would be some sort of public outcry, but it appears that there aren't enough people upset by this to make a difference, unlike previous revolutions over Facebook's Beacon ad system. For example, quitfacebookday.com has only 4,000 committed quitters as of this writing. Compared to 400 million users, that isn't a lot of outrage.

Facebook may ultimately turn out to be a historical footnote, but if it manages to convince hundreds of millions of people that online privacy doesn't matter, it will be a chapter unto itself.

This story, "How I learned to stop worrying about privacy and love Facebook," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in privacy, and read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com.

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