Facebook becoming a phonebook by data mining your personal life, warn experts

Dave Masko's picture

EUGENE, Ore. – A popular coffee shop near the University of Oregon in Eugene is warning it’s java-sipping laptop customers to “beware of Facebook” if you want your privacy protected; meanwhile Facebook is testing a service called “Deals” that data mines yet more personal information from the popular social networking site that features more than 600 million users.

“Facebook is planning to make users' addresses and mobile phone numbers available to apps that people use on the site,” reports national and worldwide media that are also sharing Facebook’s “Big Brother” intent to capture more personal shopping information from users. “Facebook is the slowly-warming pot of water and we, my friends, are the frog. By the time we noticed our peeling skin, another hunk of our privacy is long gone,” writes MSNBC’s Helen Popkin in a response to Facebook’s latest plans to data mine yet more personal information from its 600 million users.

Popkin’s comments were also widely reported in England by the London based “Guardian” newspaper and other media at a time when personal security is being tested in the wake of Friday’s Royal Wedding and new terrorism security threats. Also, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., warns that “Facebook needs to protect the personal information of its users to ensure that Facebook doesn’t become Phonebook.”

Facebook viewed as too powerful as it becomes Big Brother

Facebook’s “Big Brother” image is common at the University of Oregon and other universities were students are referencing George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel about a “collectivist society where Big Brother demands social networking surveillance” so it can “manipulate and control the actions of humanity.” While such views may seem far-fetched, many students here in Eugene – along with Popkin and Congressman Markey -- have real concerns about the power of Facebook as it grows with more than 600 million users worldwide.

“Just as there is rebellion against Big Brother in Orwell’s novel 1984, so too is it difficult for me to manage my craft business without Facebook,” worries Eugene student and entrepreneur Meredith Lidstrom.

In turn, Congressman Markey wrote: "That’s why I am requesting responses to these questions to better understand Facebook’s practices regarding possible access to users’ personal information by third parties. This is sensitive data and needs to be protected.”

Moreover, "Facebook will be moving forward with a controversial plan to give third-party developers and external web sites the ability to access users' home addresses and cell phone numbers in the face of criticism from privacy experts, users, and even congressmen," the Wall Street Journal reported.

"It is very good for companies to actually be making privacy policies easier to understand," Nicole Ozer, a policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California told the Wall Street Journal recently. "But users should be looking for privacy policies that are not only readable, but actually protect their privacy."

Facebook launches “Deals” that will data mine more personal information for the machine

According to news service reports, Facebook began testing a serviced called “Deals” this week in five cities with a service its marketing to help users save money on “discounted deals,” while “sharing users shopping expeditions with friends on the site.”

Privacy advocates here in Eugene and other parts of the country are worried that this “sharing” of user likes and dislikes.”

“I’m not so sure that revealing my personal shopping interests should be part of Mark Zuckerberg’s (Facebook’s CEO) vision of making social networking worldwide,” quips Eugene entrepreneur Meredith Lidstrom. “What people are asking Facebook is can you guarantee that the IRS, the cops and others do not have access to what I do on Facebook. We know that answer, and it’s more than a bit scary.”

Facebook digging deeper into user interests

According to reports in the New York Daily News, “Facebook is entering a market that has been led by Groupon Inc. and Living-Social, which have become two of the world’s fastest growing businesses swerving up coupons to consumers.”

"It's a huge win for Facebook and its advertisers, because people will flock to the opportunity of purchasing things that their friends get," Emily White, Facebook's director of local ventures, wrote on the company's site.

At the same time, the New York Daily News reports that “the new venture was greeted cautiously by some Facebook users online, as well as some experts.”
Facebook is meanwhile experimenting with a new privacy policy that would be more like a guide to how personal information is used, rather than a long legal document.

Data mining technology is a fire that’s burning user privacy rights, say experts

“I’m not a big fan of kids being on Facebook. It’s not something they need,” explained First Lady Michelle Obama during a “Today Show” interview last month; at the same time, many other Americans are expressing concern over exposing themselves and their children to user “data mining” that companies and government agencies collect via cell phone and Internet use that contains highly personal and private information.

The issue of “data mining” was raised by a recent Senate hearing on privacy rights for Americans who expose both themselves and their children to social media web sites that create easy pickings for those who mine personal information for Internet marketing and other uses.

In fact, Congress has put forward legislation that if enacted could create the first government limitations on the use of data mining technology that’s running out of control in cyberspace today.

Here in high-tech business centers in Eugene, and at the University of Oregon, much is discussed about how to make simple cell phone calls and Internet searches safe from those who would “mine” people’s personal information for both business and illegal purposes.

Privacy rights don't mean much to Big Brother aka Facebook

“I’d compare today’s data mining in this digital age to a fire that’s burning user privacy rights to the ground. If you had a fire going, you’d put it out. Yet, we’re letting this fire burn out of control,” says Eugene computer security expert Chuck DeSousa.

In fact, recent revelations about Facebook security and privacy issues are just “a tip of the iceberg,” adds DeSousa, who consults with the University of Oregon and other local information technology hubs that view data mining as a clear and present danger for anyone on line.

Moreover, DeSousa notes that the worries users have about the collection of personal data now extends to any “analytic capabilities that are applied to data.”

He also notes that data mining is a “growth industry” here in Eugene and other major cities where “computer users are viewed like cattle” that are observed and then mined of their personal information.

Today’s high-tech data mining tools help both good and bad computer experts “mine” personal information by identifying patterns among customers. “Once we put the spotlight on your cell phone or Internet patterns, we respond with appropriate advertising. For law enforcement, they take a look at what you’re saying on your Facebook page and who you’re connecting to,” DeSousa warns.

Facebook setting the pace for data mining

According to a Facebook advertising promotion, members can “look forward” to hitting a “like” button to see if there’s something they need along the lines of searching for items on eBay. At the same time, those user wants will be featured on a “friends” Facebook homepage.

“We’re taking what is happening in your News Feed and finding a new way to distribute it so it’s easy for your friends to see. It’s another way for friends to tell friends what they recommend,” explains Facebook’s marketing official Brandon McCormick during recent media briefings.

At the same time, those Facebook users who are concerned about privacy simply “don’t want my wish lists shared with people on Facebook,” says University of Oregon student Jim Koch who adds “I get enough prompting to buy junk here in Eugene without Facebook swamping me with yet more things my girl friend may want.”

A new European Union Information Society and Media report shows how such strategy to milk more ad money out of social networking sites is on the rise.

“Given that the Internet is integrated into much of everyday life, it raises critical issues about privacy when a social networking site saturates its users with
advertisements,” stated the EU report that’s critical of “holding Internet users hostage to unwanted advertisements” that are increasing as the Net grows and grows.

With Facebook having about 600 million members, it’s clear that more ads that both link and use the users as marketing and advertising tools is a money maker, but users may wonder at what cost?

Big Brother's goal is to think for its users

“It’s like Facebook thinks for us. It’s now telling us what I want to buy and then relaying that to my family and friends on our Facebook pages without any real input or approval from us. That’s not cool,” says Koch who’s thinking of cooling it when it comes to sharing his wants on Facebook.

Up north in Canada, this privacy issue has produced a critical evaluation of data mining that was recently released to the public by Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian.

The report, dubbed “Data Mining: Staking a Claim on Your Privacy,” states that today’s massive use of cell phones and the Internet has resulted in “little or no real privacy for anyone on line,” and this may be “the most fundamental challenge that privacy advocates will face in the next decade.”

Still, most Americans “get down on both knees to worship technology without questioning where all their personal information is going, or how it’s being used. If you’re on line and not fearful, than you should be,” adds DeSousa.

Image source of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: Wikipedia

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