Facebook a creepy peeping tom neighbor?

An evening on the computer

Apparently Facebook is collecting even more information about us than we thought:

A Computer Associates security researcher is sounding the alarm that Facebook’s controversial Beacon online ad system goes much further than anyone has imagined in tracking people’s Web activities outside the popular social networking site.

Beacon will report back to Facebook on members’ activities on third-party sites that participate in Beacon even if the users are logged off from Facebook and have declined having their activities broadcast to their Facebook friends.

I can’t say I’m surprised – the entire design of Facebook has consistently been geared to extract as much information as possible from their users, and they haven’t exactly been sneaky or subtle about it. Still, a depressing wake up call for all those folks who are blithely spilling their lives all over social networking systems.

They don’t provide much in the way of technical details. However, as the wonderful Web 2.0 world moves us farther and farther away from the web as a collection of simple text pages with HTML tags thrown in for pretties, there are more and more ways that we can be tracked and subverted. We can certainly do more (I do love Flickr, and Google Calendar is a joy), but we expose ourselves to increasingly more risk as a consequence.

Caveat emptor.

(Apparently Facebook has turned off Beacon, although my suspicion is that Beacon is just the tip of Facebook’s data collection iceberg.)

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5 Responses to Facebook a creepy peeping tom neighbor?

  1. CoryQ says:

    I asked the students that work for me about “Google Earth”. They don’t find that creepy at all. I wonder if there is some fundamental shift about privacy going on. A sort of ‘yeah I know its out there but don’t really care’ attitude about these small violations. if you grow up on the internet putting random peices of yourself up for public display, you have to expect a certain amount of what you and I might call ‘creppiness’, right?

  2. Phi says:

    I think you’re spot on. Putting information about yourself on-line (Facebook, MySpace, blogging, Flickr) has a cost (loss of certain kinds of privacy) and benefits (stronger social bonds and networking). A likely scenario is that Sub-Evil’s generation is going to weigh that cost-benefit analysis differently than my parents (or I) would have.

    The one rub, however, is that the cost is typically quite delayed (politicians being asked about pot smoking decades later), and we’re generally pretty crap about factoring in delayed costs, especially when we’re young (look at car insurance rates for young men). One potentially interesting outcome (but we probably won’t know for many years) is that almost everyone will have “dirt” that can be dug up on line. At which point we just might start to assume that even politicians (and teachers and managers etc.) are in fact human and complex and fallible, and focus more on their aptitude for the job in question and less on whether they did something foolish their sophomore year in college.

  3. CoryQ says:

    That delayed reaction idea is a good one to consider. I wish I had your optimism of the outcome.

  4. Phi says:

    Yeah, well, on any given day I’m not always so optimistic. There are, in fairness, an awful lot of possible outcomes, and I suspect that there are lots of little things that could tip the balance. Given the widespread use of these tools in young folks today, however, I have to wonder how many competent people will be left with a record sufficiently clean to sit in Congress or act as Federal judges.

    There’s a crazy case here in the UK at the moment where a guy disappeared at sea while kayaking five years ago, was never found, and was officially pronounced dead. His wife eventually sold everything and moved to Panama. A week or two ago this fellow shows up quite alive at a local police station claiming to remember nothing of who he is/was (name, marriage, accident).

    Some bright bulb Googled his name, her name, and Panama, and found a photo of the two of them in Panama together after the disappearance with a real estate broker!

    Oops.

    Busted!

    Criminalistics via Google.

    Crazy, crazy, crazy…

  5. CoryQ says:

    :D Now that is a beautiful thing right there!

    In “Life’s Little Instruction Book” there is, in the first one hundred suggestions I believe, one that says “Never be photographed holding an alcoholic beverage”. So many students could use that advice.

    The trail that people leave electronically isn’t too hard to find, if you use the net a lot (flickr, blog, etc), but there are still folks out there who aren’t connected and almost invisible this way, but they aren’t young. Maybe this electronic trail (which can only be partly cleaned up after one no longer wants to out there, like holding sand in your hands) will help revise down the completely unrealistic expectations we have of our elected officials as today’s youngsters come of voting age… or not. Seems to be more likely that the ability of those wishing to spread malice will have more tools to start rumors or spread caluminty as the fact checking of the vast webernets community is weak.*

    I don’t suppose learning from other people’s mistakes is a trait that the vast bulk of humainty possesses.

    *Not everyone is a rube or fast and loose with the facts, but if it wasn’t for Snopes.com, I am sure I would still be getting forwarded emails about “Hey, Microsoft is tracking this email and you will get $100 for forwarding it to everyone on the planet”.

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