In 2005, when Facebook was still primarily available to college and university students, I took a class at the University of Washington about digital media and privacy. Several groups discussed Facebook, “explaining” this new social network. As part of the explanation, they printed (yes, printed) examples of other students’ Facebook pages, including mine. Being slightly technically savvy, I had utilized what few privacy options there were, which limited most of my information to friends only. To my horror, the other group printed off my private profile and passed it around the 60 person lecture, comprised mostly of people I had never met before.
This incident did more than prove the point that Facebook exists — it proved a point that was ironically missed in the discussion. With Facebook, there is no security of privacy — there never was in the beginning, and even less now. Seven years ago, the lack of privacy was highlighted when anyone could copy, paste, and print information from a private profile for the public to read and see. Over the years, Facebook users have been trained to accept that this is acceptable and a core aspect of using Facebook. Some users are so naive to believe their information is inherently private, but many others not only realize that there is a complete lack of privacy, but also accept it and still use Facebook.
With Facebook’s new Timeline, users are eager to add and update every detail of their life, from present all the way back to their date of birth. Sure, it sounds ideal to share every birthday party, remember lost loved ones, and highlight other monumental moments in life. Users who do share all of this information — and more — seem to be setting themselves up for identity theft. Did you post a picture of yourself with your high school mascot? That’s the answer to one of your bank’s security questions. Did you post a picture of your parents’ marriage or anniversary? You mother’s maiden name is also a security question for many Web sites. Did you post each and every detail about your last relationship via the Timeline? Anyone with a severe jealousy problem could easily start stalking you.
In fact, if you do not change your Timeline settings, most of the Timeline posts on Facebook are defaulted to public — and changing this setting with Facebook’s one-click option to limit who can see previous Timeline entries only limits entries to friends. For those who have been on Facebook, you know that very few of your friends qualify as “friends” who should see this level of personal information.
I’m not a proponent of anonymity — I’m glad the Internet is making the move to requiring real names to comment and engage with others on comment and message boards. But I am not okay with how much we have forgotten not only how to be private, but why. It’s not about hiding information from your parents — it’s about maintaining personal security and safety. Facebook has always been fun, useful, and great for maintaining relationships.
But these new features from Facebook make the social network more scary to use than fun. Whatever happened to privacy? Consider taking the time to understand what and where you information is shared — and whether continuing to share personal information is worth the risk.