No Post to Hide

Experts warn net users that they have no privacy on web

By Eljohn Macaranas | Charles W. Flanagan High School

Nancy Molina used Facebook as a link to her family and friends.

She played games.

She did just about everything an average user does on the social media giant.

“I loved Facebook before I had problems with it,” Molina said. “I was addicted to Facebook. I was on it all the time at work, at home, on the phone.”

Six months ago, Molina quit Facebook and has not returned because she encountered privacy leaks, a common but relatively unknown problem users face.

“It was such a problem that people would know everything [about you],” said Molina, an administrative assistant at the University of Miami. “I did look at my options for privacy. I did have probably the most protected Facebook profile ever invented. I just got to a point that I took it down.”

Across cyberspace hundreds of millions of people connect on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube every day. These networks are watching, listening and collecting information. Some say it is George Orwell’s 1984 in the new millennia, a time when the internet becomes “Big Brother,” the all watching, all-listening, eavesdropping overseer.

“Although I never enabled it, the fact that it [social networks] can actually check your location, that’s just scary to me,” Molina said.

“People don’t know what goes on when they use a computer or browser,” said Huyseyin Kocak, chairman of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Miami. “In general, what you put out on the web is no longer yours.”

Computer scientists say a majority of Facebook users are unaware how or why Facebook collects their personal information and distributes it to private corporations.

When users post their addresses, phone numbers, job information, interests and interact with other content providers on Facebook – such as clicking on “likes” or friending others – the social media website collects and analyzes this data to improve users’ experiences and provide advertisers and marketers with the means to discover consumers’ wants and needs.

Although many users are unaware of the privacy implications of providing Facebook with a substantial amount of their personal information, some individuals who are aware of these activities are limiting their involvement, informing others or creating their own alternatives to the social network.

More than 750 million people around the world are sharing or posting personal information on Facebook, according to Facebook’s statistics page. More than 30 billion pieces of content – web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, and photo albums – are shared each month.

Facebook executives anticipate even more people joining the social networking site in the coming years and will have an initial public stock offering by April 2012, according to media reports.

Shay Mattis, a student at the University of Miami, has a Facebook account to share her status and pictures about where she has traveled.

“I do it to keep in contact [with friends],” said Mattis who uses Facebook multiple times a day.

While many Facebook users like Mattis post information about themselves, computer scientists at the University of Miami are wary about privacy implications.

“Most websites are not secure,” Kocak said. “Computer security is an important issue.”

“I limit my involvement because of the privacy issues,” said Burton Rosenberg, associate professor of computer science at the University of Miami, noting that content ownership issues also are at stake.

“[Users are] trusting everything [content] to the Facebook guys,” Kocak said. “Any keystroke, the delete button gets recorded, everything you do is recorded.”

Rosenberg agrees, saying, “When you click on a like button, Facebook can now post on that site your name.”

In addition to computer scientists, attorneys who specialize in Internet law are on the lookout for privacy implications.

“The big issue [users have] understanding Facebook’s one-sided view on rights and private information,” said Enrico Schaefer, founding attorney of Traverse Legal Company, a Michigan firm that specializes in Internet law.

“Be careful,” Schaefer said, “chances are you are giving up all [content] rights.”

Eric Goldberg, associate professor of Santa Clara University School of Law, said Facebook’s terms of use are “unreadable.”

“People need to stand behind the words they share,” Goldberg said about the confusing language in the terms.

He said he blames the consumer and Facebook for the problems associated with the site.

Others who embrace the idea of social networking but do not share Facebook’s philosophy on privacy and personal information are creating new networks.

Those new sites, including Diaspora and Google+, promise a more secure, private social networking experience.

“This annoyance with Facebook’s privacy policies do provide competitors with an opportunity to move in and compete,” Rosenberg said.

Diaspora’s website states it will be the “social network that puts you in control of your information,” promising to not “expose your information to advertisers, or to games you play, or to other websites you visit.”

Google+, the widely-known search engine’s answer to the hit social network, aims to provide its users with a network based on circles. A user can set up specific circles which contain family, friends and acquaintances. When a user wants to share content with a certain circle of users, only the user-specified circle will see the content posted.

Google’s ambitious project also introduces a concept called hangouts, which allows certain people in a circle to know when a user is available for an unplanned get together through video calls.

What makes Google’s offering substantially different is the accompanying service Google Takeout, which allows users to take their data back from Google servers.

“Google Takeout lets you take your data out of multiple Google products in one fell swoop,” the Data Liberation group reported in a blog posting. “Moreover, you’ll find that all your data is in portable and open formats‚ so it’s easy to import to other services quickly.”

In addition to these relatively new sites, established networking sites like Twitter seem to take the place of Facebook. Molina, for example, started using Twitter more than a year ago.

The concept of social networking is still very interesting to its users despite the privacy caveats that accompany these breakthroughs.

“It’s like the wall of communication has been broken down,” Molina said. “I think it is pretty cool communication has really opened.”

Inside Facebook, a site that tracks Facebook and the Facebook platform for developers and marketers, has reported that for the first time in the past year, the United States has lost users. The United States lost nearly 6 million users, falling from 155.2 million at the start of May to 149.4 million at the end of that month.

Molina is one who left, probably for good.

“I don’t know if I’ll go back to Facebook,” she says.

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