Here is one iron law of the Internet: a social network’s emphasis on monetizing its product is directly proportional to its users’ loss of privacy.
At one extreme there are networks like Craigslist and Wikipedia, which pursue relatively few profits and enable nearly absolute anonymity and privacy. At the other end of the spectrum is Facebook, a $68 billion company that is constantly seeking ways to monetize its users and their personal data.
Facebook’s latest program, Graph Search, may be the company’s largest privacy infraction ever.
Facebook announced Graph Search in mid-January, but it has not officially launched. According to company materials and some independent reports, however, the program cracks open Facebook’s warehouse of personal information to allow searching and data-mining on a large portion of Facebook’s 1 billion users. Users who set their profiles to “public” are about to be exposed to their largest audience ever.
Facebook sees this as the future. In a video announcing the program, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder and CEO, touts Graph Search as one of three core pillars of “the Facebook ecosystem.”
The financial incentives are clear. Google, which is triple the size of Facebook, makes most of its revenue through search ads. So while the companies host the two most-visited sites in America, Google squeezes more money out of users in less time. Search provides a way for Facebook to sell more to its active users and, of course, to sell its users to others. That’s where Tom Scott comes in.
Scott, a 28-year-old British programmer, prankster and former political candidate—he ran on a “Pirate” platform of scrapping rum taxes—has launched his own prebuttal to Graph Search. His new blog, “Actual Facebook Graph Searches,” uses a beta-test version of the feature to show its dark side.
With a few clicks, Scott shows how Graph Search provides real names, and other identifying information, for all kinds of problematic combinations, from the embarrassing and hypocritical to ready-made Enemies Lists for repressive regimes. His searches include Catholic mothers in Italy who have stated a preference for Durex condoms and, more ominously, Chinese residents who have family members that like Falun Gong. (He removed all real names, but soon anyone can run these searches.)
“Graph Search jokes are a good way of startling people into checking their privacy settings,” says Scott, who was randomly included in a test sample for early access to the program. “I’m not sure I’m making any deeper point about privacy,” he told The Nation. That may have helped make Scott’s lighthearted effort so effective.