Report: Facebook Defeats Users’ Privacy Efforts

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A Carnegie Mellon report has found that while users are making increasing efforts to keep their information private, Facebook’s privacy changes have resulted in their sharing more information over time

Facebook users have sought to make their information more private, while sharing more data than ever, according to a report from Carnegie Mellon University.

Researchers studied 5,076 Facebook accounts affiliated with the university between 2005, Facebook’s early days, and 2011, and found “three contrasting trends”.

Seeking privacy

First, over the years, Facebook users exhibited “increasingly privacy-seeking behaviour”. They progressively decreased the amount of personal information they shared and made available to those outside their networks.

Secondly, Facebook, toward the end of the observation period, “arrested or in some cases inverted that trend”, wrote the researchers.

Facebook brokenAnd third, due to changes Facebook made in its default settings and interface, the “amount and scope” of personal information that Facebook users ultimately revealed to their Friends increased over time, and so did the information they revealed to a group the researchers refer to as “silent listeners”: Facebook, third-party applications and indirect advertisers.

The increasingly granular settings Facebook has offered users has given them an increasing sense of control, the study found, keeping their attention on the content they’re sharing and “misdirecting” their attention from “disclosures of sensitive information to strangers.”

The study’s results “highlight the tension between privacy choices as expressions of individual subjective preferences, and the role of the environment … in affecting those choices”, states the report.

‘Modern Sisyphus’

“Like a modern Sisyphus, some consumers strive to reach their chosen ‘privacy shot’ – their desired balance between revealing and protecting – only to be taken aback by the next privacy challenge.”

On 7 March, Facebook introduced a redesign to its site that it will gradually roll out to users over the next few weeks. Facebook said it’s working to “reduce clutter and focus more on stories from the people you care about.”

The News Feed also will be more photo-centric, “much more vibrant and colourful”, and offer a consistent experience between the desktop and mobile devices – a better situation for advertisers, which in mobile versions of Facebook don’t have the right-hand column they do on the desktop layout.

The redesign will also include a change to the location of the privacy settings button, from the top right, near the log-in screen, to the top left of the new News Feed.

Managing one’s privacy settings are now especially important with the introduction of Graph Search, a feature Facebook showed off in January. Graph search enables Facebook to behave as a type of Google or Bing, searching through user content for answers to queries.

Even items that users have hidden from their timelines can appear in the Graph Search.

Silent observers

Items being viewed by those other than whom Facebook users anticipate is an increasing issue, the Carnegie Mellon study found. While the users in the study acted to be increasingly private with their information, “information shared by the average Facebook user was, in fact, doubling every year – an exponential rate of growth”, said the report.

Given that users tended toward fewer public disclosures across all data categories, the report added, the increased disclosures were likely ended up reaching “entities other than a user’s friends”.

Or more specifically, the silent listeners. “The evidence presented … raises questions over the degree of awareness and intentionality under which Facebook users provided increasing amounts of personal information,” said the report, “to the silent listeners in the network.”

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Originally published on eWeek.

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