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Facebook privacy concerns: Timeline profile and user tracking

This entry by Zen Archer gives an up-close glimpse of some of the current concerns associated with Facebook privacy. A special focus here is on the Timeline profile’s privacy-infringing peculiarities and user tracking implementation.

Facebook's 'Timeline' profile contributes to more intense tracking Facebook is different now. A lot of people say it is a pivot, going from a private social network into whatever the hell it is now.

And this is really the pivot that Facebook is struggling with because they got to fame being just an awesome private social network. It is pretty cool when you have a good network of people. But that’s because it works as a private network, and this is a switch to a public network, whether or not it is a good thing.

Having significant impact onto our life, Facebook constantly introduces new features, changes privacy settings and offers tons of apps. All those huge amounts of controls are a little bit scary and weird. Facebook keeps people readjusting to life all the time, moving too fast and too far in their efforts, and the new Timeline is a good example of that.

Before discussing Timeline and digging deeper into privacy concerns, let’s touch upon things which look funny at first sight. Have you heard all the rumors about Facebook going to a membership-based model, and all those stupid statuses: “If you copy and paste this message, Mark Zukerberg will let you keep it for free?” Somebody was really awesome trolling on Reddit: “To troll your friends make this your profile picture”, and then it is: “To view this picture, you need a Facebook Gold account”. It’s like: “If we get enough people doing this, we can make people think that they have to pay for Facebook”.

All the data you are putting in Facebook makes them 2-3 Billion dollars a year.

Though the whole idea of paying for Facebook may seem funny, as no one is going to pay for Facebook, and no one needs to pay for Facebook, but you know what, you are already paying for Facebook. All the data you are putting in makes them 2-3 Billion dollars a year. Yes, you are not paying in actual dollars but don’t pretend that you are not paying, you are! You and your privacy are suffering for all the features you get. We all really need to pay more attention to what’s going on out there on Facebook.

Facebook Timeline profile

The new Timeline came out. Great! Timeline is supposed to be the story of your life, from when you were born up until present day, and you can add information there: your achievements, pictures, events.

This is what 'Timeline' profile looks like

This is what 'Timeline' profile looks like

When you first hear of it, you can think: “Wow, this is really cool! Let me get it”. And their video, which Facebook released to explain the Timeline, is a very motivational and inspirational thing. It is actually quite a good video as a marketing instrument.

They have done some massive stuff with Timeline. If in 300-400 years Timeline could be still available, and if you could go and look back at a famous person’s life and dig through like a historian or biographer, the amount of things you can learn about somebody’s life is huge. And it is really so, because when Timeline came in, people found a lot of their stuff was automatically there. You suddenly realize that all of the stuff that you thought was private and hidden was not actually private and hidden, it was available for the public to see. Information gets hidden based on its importance. But eventually it does not go away, it just gets hidden, you just have to click the button and it opens up again.

Actually, everything depends on how public you want to be. If you are a celebrity, you should be happy that everything Facebook knows about you is made in an easy way to view.

But what about those people who have this real hesitation about sharing things, and sharing things online? Of course they can go and set all these things to be private. Go to the side, there’s a star and a pencil symbols there, either click on a star and make a specific story a big thing, important event, or click on a pencil and hide that story. You can go through and control what stories are shown and what stories are not. You can, but that’s a lot of work. You actually have to go though and do all of it yourself. It’s more like Facebook: “Hey, here is everything we know about you, now go through”. Why is it another way around, why do you need to go and remove stuff, why isn’t it that you go and add stuff?

You might want to go in there and set the defaults to be that it is only shared with your inner circle of friends or people you can trust, people you want to know more about you. And then you can decide what goes in that Timeline.

At Facebook, they decide that everything should be public first, and then you have to remove stuff.

Another example here is the places. Timeline can map out everywhere you have been to according to the places you have checked in or your friends have checked you in. Somebody can check you in, even if you were not actually there, or even if you do not want your friends to know you were there. In this case, you have to go and uncheck that person to be able to check you in. This is the primary issue with Facebook, they decide that everything should be public first, and then you have to remove stuff. Seems they are following Twitter, because everything in Twitter is public first, always, this is how Twitter works, that is where the value of Twitter is. But that is because Twitter is a public service and Facebook has always been more about privacy.

User tracking on Facebook

There is a lot to be thinking about when it comes to privacy on Facebook. A lot of privacy concerns have to do with reports that Facebook is tracking logged out users.

Australian blogger's research: even when logged out, you are still being tracked by Facebook

Australian blogger's research: even when logged out, you are still being tracked by Facebook

A couple of congressmen were alerted to something that an Australian blogger had put up. While checking cookies from Facebook, he found, even when he was logged out of Facebook, when he was somewhere else, on another website, his computer was still sending information back to Facebook about where he was, what he was watching and clicking.

So, he was concerned and he wrote in his blog about it, and this started with that. Two congressmen got involved and they were asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate accusations.

At first, Facebook’s reply was: “We don’t track people when they are not logged in”. Of course, Facebook does not want you to log out because they want to be able to track you. Social media require sharing, and the more sharing that is available the better it goes, the more company gets, and also the more information they have that they can sell to advertisers, or give to advertisers in order to target you.

A lot of privacy concerns have to do with reports that Facebook is tracking logged out users.

But then, when it was proven that their cookies were doing that, Facebook said: “Oh, okay, we will stop that, and we will fix that”. Facebook’s whole attitude about privacy seems to be: “Let us just do it until we get caught”. And then, when they get caught, they say: “Oops, we are sorry, we did not realize”, or: “Yes, we did that, but our intention was not bad”. And so, those privacy issues still exist. It is kind of: “Let us go ahead and do that and wait till we get caught and apologize for it and do it again”. And on public, Facebook guys have repeatedly said: “Don’t worry, it’s fine, trust us, there is nothing wrong with this”.

Facebook is watching you They have even set up a little program where they would like you to tell them when you catch them: “Oh, this is doing this”, so that they can fix it before it becomes a huge media problem and they have people like congressmen asking governing parties to take a hard look at what they are doing.

So, the way this tracking works is – even if you are logged out of your Facebook, there are certain cookies that are stored by your browser, that allow Facebook to still track the websites that you are going to, and then use that for marketing. You might think that you are not actually logged into Facebook and that they cannot track you, but if you have used a particular app like the Timeline app, they can.

Read next: Facebook privacy concerns 2: data sharing pitfalls and tweaking privacy settings

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