Must Facebook and Privacy Be Like Oil and Water?

I have been increasingly concerned about the moving target that Facebook's privacy policy has become. To the point that lately I have been considering just dumping my account altogether.

Update: I had tossed some questions out to Matt Pizzimenti, creator of ReclaimPrivacy.org, prior to posting this entry, and he has graciously responded, so I am updating the article with his comments.

[ See also: Facebook's privacy controls are seriously broken ]

I'm not alone. On May 31, over 12,000 soon-to-be-ex Facebook users have committed to quit Facebook altogether. And, in a dogs-and-cats-living-together sort of moment, I even find myself agreeing with Dan Lyons, because he's voicing some of the same concerns I have.

Here's the average user's problem: Facebook is a private site, and I signed onto it. If I don't like their policies, I can take my marbles and go home. Or choose to opt out of the public use of my data. Except...

...the privacy policy I had when I joined Facebook three years ago is different than what it is now. Yes, I've kept up, but I'm a tech writer and get paid to follow this stuff. How many people actually read the new privacy policies?

...it has become increasingly difficult to actually pull out of Facebook. I'm not talking about the guilt of abandoning your friends. Being cold and heartless, such emotions do not concern me. But the logistical issue of deleting your account (versus disabling it) has gotten to the point that CNET just posted an FAQ on Facebook account deletion.

...opting out of individual privacy changes is a byzantine process that is so time consuming, you just want to up and quit. Not to mention that we should be opting in to opening our data, not the other way around.

Which leaves most Facebook users in a dilemma, though many are blissfully ignorant of the problem. Or they will be until their inbox fills up with targeted spam. Or advertisements follow them around on most of the sites they are visiting. Or, perhaps inevitably, someone pieces enough of their personal data together to hack into their online bank account. Maybe that'll slap them to attention.

Here's the thing: I know social media sites need to make money to operate and grow. I've got nothing against that. But my relationship with most businesses is pretty much on the up and up: I walk into the store, I know they are going to try to sell me something. There are nuances, like "when I walk into a big-box electronics store, they are going to try to sell me a useless product warranty with my purchase to up their profit margin." That sort of thing.

But with Facebook, I never know the nature of my relationship. It's complicated, and it shouldn't be.

So what to do? If you want all the way out, the aforementioned FAQ will help. Jason Perlow has put together a great manual way to lock down Facebook accounts.

If you want something a little less strenuous, try the bookmarklet tool found at ReclaimPrivacy.org. It's an open source tool that will scan your privacy settings and alert you if something is less-than-private.

Matt Pizzimenti, a software engineer who co-founded Olark.com (a live chat tool for SMBs to communicate with their website visitors) about a year ago with a few friends, started "ReclaimPrivacy.org as a weekend project that just exploded this week."

Pizzimenti's approach to creating ReclaimPrivacy.org was straightforward: "Basically I was a little frustrated with Facebook changing their privacy settings so frequently," he wrote " There were also certain settings that seemed to be taken away, and at one point it seemed that I couldn't even make my Friends list private. It's kind of annoying to have to stay on top of every Facebook announcement and then dig through all the new privacy settings (which are now pretty much public by default).

"Specifically, I knew it would be too hard to explain the complex privacy navigation to my less-technical friends and family. That complexity was my motivation for building an automated tool--I wanted them to be able to quickly see any privacy issues and close them up if they wanted to," Pizzimenti added.

Using ReclaimPrivacy.org is indeed simple; just drag the bookmarklet up to your bookmarks, log into Facebook, and surf to your privacy settings. Once on the page, click the bookmarklet link and off the script will scan. I've used it, and found it to be pretty good. I'd thought I'd set everything in Facebook correctly myself, but learned that some settings were still open.

It's not perfect. The author of the tool states on his web site known issues and has a list of the privacy settings the application still needs to scan. For me, it discovered that my Friends Sharing My Information settings were wide open, but the auto-fix tool did not successfully work. But, the display pane did have a link right to that page of my privacy settings, which enabled me to very quickly set my preferences manually.

Pizzimenti, having built a tool to fix Facebook privacy, is still hopeful the website's owners will ultimately do the right thing.

"My impression is that there are a lot of Facebook users (including myself) don't want to quit Facebook entirely. I think a better middle-ground is to offer clear and easy control over privacy. When Facebook updates their privacy navigation, I hope they continue to offer the advanced granular controls they have right now, but add simple presets like 'Completely Private,' 'Moderately Private,' and 'Public,' Pizzimenti concluded.

The more social media pervades into our personal and professional lives, the more chances we have to lose control of our privacy because of opportunism and apathetic users. Open source projects like this are the best rapid-response tools we have to stay on our guard.

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