The privacy invasion escalates

17 Sep

September 17, 2007

By Geoff Meeker

Back in June, I warned Internet users to think twice before blindly clicking the ‘I Accept’ button under terms of use, when they join popular web sites.

By doing so, they surrender their privacy to a virtual ‘Big Brother’ and make their personal information available to advertisers looking who want their attention.

I warned you, for example, that Google mail – or gmail – is not private. Google computers ‘read’ your email messages looking for keywords that are a good match for their advertisers. They can search your daily calendar and other personal documents – if stored online – for clues to your tastes and buying habits. Advertisers are willing to pay good money for access to this information.

Now Facebook is making headlines in its efforts to capitalize on the vast amount of user information amassed on its database. The site, which now accounts for one per cent of all web traffic, is planning to launch an advertising system that will use stored personal information to precisely target ad delivery.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the system will “let marketers target users with ads based on the massive amounts of information people reveal on the site about themselves.”

But that’s not all. Their programs actually have predictive abilities – they know what you want before you do. According to the Wall Street Journal, the system will “predict what products and services users might be interested in even before they have specifically mentioned an area.”

Think about this. In order for Facebook to work, you cannot be anonymous. You have to give your name in order for friends to track you down.  And all other information you post at the site is personal, in some way or another. When you post such information, you know that no one else will be able to read it, except those who you allow or invite to be ‘friends’… which is how it should be. Secure in this knowledge, we tend to post freely a lot of information about our interests, tastes and personal activities.

Would we be so open with our information if we knew it was being scrutinized by the marketing division, who were selling it to people who want to advertise at us? True, the advertisers don’t see your personal information – Facebook directs the traffic to you – but the ads are matched to your personal information.

Here’s how Facebook describes it in their own privacy statement: “Facebook may use information in your profile without identifying you as an individual to third parties. We do this for purposes such as aggregating how many people in a network like a band or movie and personalizing advertisements and promotions so that we can provide you Facebook. We believe this benefits you. You can know more about the world around you and, where there are advertisements, they’re more likely to be interesting to you. For example, if you put a favorite movie in your profile, we might serve you an advertisement highlighting a screening of a similar one in your town. But we don’t tell the movie company who you are.

“We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services, Facebook Platform developers and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile. Where such information is used, we generally allow you to specify in your privacy settings that you do not want this to be done or to take other actions that limit the connection of this information to your profile (e.g., removing photo tag links).”

According to that last paragraph, Facebook would like to create a ‘super profile’ of you, based not just on Facebook information but data collected elsewhere as well.

The bottom line? Facebook and other online services  may be free – which is part of their popularity – but using them does have a cost.

That cost is a piece of your privacy.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at


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