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New Facebook Search Means It’s Time to Review Your Privacy Settings (Again)

Chris Conley,
Policy Attorney,
ACLU of Northern California Technology and Civil Liberties Project
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January 15, 2013

This morning’s media event was Facebook’s announcement of “Graph Search,” a new tool to find content and data on Facebook that could wind up making information about you far easier your friends or just about anyone else to find. Graph Search allows you to search Facebook for specific people, places, or content – for example, “friend of friends who live in New York and like sushi” or “restaurants liked by friends who also like Taco Bell” – using a brand-new interface. Here’s what that means – and how you can follow Mark Zuckerberg’s suggestion to “take some time to review your stuff” so that your private information isn’t suddenly available to others.

Facebook emphasized that Graph Search respects existing privacy settings and does not expose any new information about users to anyone. However, controlling your personal data means controlling not only who can see your information but how it can be found and what can be done with it. And there is no question that Graph Search actually does open up a number of new ways that your buried content can be discovered and used, including not only content you made publicly available years ago but even photos you intentionally “hid” from your timeline.

Graph Search also potentially undermines the privacy protections in Facebook’s advertising model. Currently, advertisers on Facebook use a similar (but more limited) system to Graph Search to identify targets for ads – “users under 35 who live in Texas,” for example – and then send ads to those users. One of the key pieces of that system, however, was the fact that the advertisers never actually received a list of the users who fit that profile – Facebook brokered the exchange so that the ad was properly delivered without the identity of the recipient ever being exposed to the advertiser. Graph Search could potentially eliminate that privacy-friendly step, allowing advertisers and other companies to easily identify Facebook users whose publicly-available data fits a specific profile.

To his credit, Mark Zuckerberg did recognize that Graph Search can expose information that was previously buried, and actually encouraged users to “take some time to review who can see your stuff.” Here’s how you can do just that:

Use Facebook’s “Privacy Shortcuts” menu (the lock icon in the upper right corner of the Facebook web page) to change the default privacy setting for your future posts.
Under the shortcuts, review your “activity log” to see what else you’ve posted or been tagged in that Graph Search users might be able to find. (Remember that changing your default setting only affects future content, not past content.)
You can also go directly to the Privacy Settings page (under the gear in the upper right), where you can do either of the above or “limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friend of friends or Public” to set all of your past content to friends only.

Postscript: our favorite part of the press conference? Mark Zuckerberg was asked about integrating Facebook’s data with more general web search, and said that he “would love to work with Google” but “was willing to work with any search engine that respected users’ privacy.” Here’s hoping that Facebook will show that same respect going forward.

(Crossposted on the ACLU of Northern California’s blog)

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