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In your Facebook

Facebook is already giving away personal information. And at least one data-miner is nervous.
By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 25, 2009


Like thousands of other Facebook users, Jason Kaufman was "alarmed" last week when he read that Facebook had subtly altered the text of its Terms of Use in ways that seemed to give its users less privacy protection.

What's notable about Kaufman's alarm is that he's one of the people who actually has access to Facebook users' private data.

Kaufman, a research fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is working on an ongoing project that studies of a discrete set of Facebook users' sociality and pop cultural preferences — using personal data gleaned from college students' profiles provided by Facebook.

"As you can imagine, there's an incredible amount of interesting information about people in their Facebook profiles," Kaufman says. "And so starting a few years ago, we picked a cohort of college students at one American college, and with Facebook's permission" — and also in accordance with Harvard's Committee on the Use of Human Subjects — "we downloaded information from one college class's Facebook pages."

"The most interesting information to me, in addition to knowing who's friends with whom, is people's self-professed favorite movies and books," he explains. "So we've been trying to study the dynamics of taste as they play out in friendships. The people who like obscure emo bands: are they also on the fringe of their college's social scene? The people who like popular rock and roll or movies, are they also popular? Does liking things make it more likely for you to be friends with people who share your tastes?"

Facebook users have been notably vocal about their privacy concerns — remember the backlash over Beacon? — and last week's blow-up over the change in the site's contract produced an outpouring of suspicion, recrimination, and protest. And that eruption came not over a revelation about Facebook releasing user data, but instead over an easily overlooked snippet of legalese that merely hinted the possibility of Facebook retaining information about a user in perpetuity. The deleted language had previously ensured that Facebook's little-understood claim to "irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license" to "use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works, and distribute" users' content would expire once a member deleted his or her account. But with a single clause's excision, it appeared Facebook was now removing the loophole that allowed users to fully delete their accounts. By last Monday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was attempting to reassure users that "on Facebook, people own and control their information."

"In reality," Zuckerberg wrote, "we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want. The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work. Our goal is to build great products and to communicate clearly to help people share more information in this trusted environment."

Two days later, under increasing pressure from Facebook users and a media firestorm, the company reinstated its previous Terms of Use agreement.

As Facebook users debate whether they can trust the company, the conversation has been framed as a philosophical issue, a what-if scenario. But what neither side seems to realize is someone may, right now, be poking, prodding, and hypothesizing about your Super Wall scrawls and "25 Things" without your knowledge.

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  Topics: News Features , Internet, Science and Technology, Technology,  More more >
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