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Facebook Begins Invading Users’ Privacy Before Birth

Hannah Miller | Monday October 15th, 2012 | 2 Comments
Gold Mine - how Facebook privacy really works

How Facebook sees your data. Photo by Wally Gobetz, used with permission.

In a recent  Ad Age article, a number of marketers revealed to the world an undeniably creepy new detail about the data-mining industry: Facebook is keeping tabs on which of their users is pregnant. Information which is then used to target advertising. Because brand loyalty begins at conception.

It’s not difficult to see how they could do it, based on the amount of commentary and in utero pictures one usually sees on FB. Facebook unfortunately refused to reveal the details of this practice to Ad Age  (like Google and most of the other data-gathering industry, which discloses very little), instead acting as if there are parts of the Facebook page that they consider “off-limits.”

The stink that writer Cotton Delo raised is the latest one of the occasional cracks in the Facebook privacy edifice that gets people to pay attention for approximately five minutes. Privacy is really kind of a buzzkill in the era of sharing, sharing, sharing, and it is really taken seriously by a small set of punk-rock civil libertarians, like my friends who carry the ACLU’s pocket-sized Constitution in their wallets.

Worse yet, most Internet users completely misunderstand why privacy is important. Yes, there are reports of people breaking into each other’s houses based on status updates, but that’s really not the point. Facebook has a lot of tutorials about how their privacy policies can help hide your information from other users, but what they don’t do is tell you how to hide your data from Facebook.

Social media is Like an iceberg

The best illustration I’ve seen about privacy and social media is the iceberg: the 20 percent you see is the phenomenal user experience and freedom of connectivity that has revolutionized most areas of human behavior. Yes, that is true, of Facebook, and Google, and everyone else. However, 80 percent of that iceberg is underwater, which is why Facebook made $1.8 billion in just three months this summer off of your demographic tidbits.

Your data is really important to a lot of companies, and the more Facebook has, the more they can make. They can make money selling Huggies ads if you are pregnant. They can make money selling banjo ads if you go to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concert. They can make money selling Lipitor ads if you tell your friends about your heart condition… wait, wait, they’re not supposed to do that! 

The point is, they can, and they do, and they don’t have to tell us anything about it.

The root of American privacy law is the idea of protecting citizens from their own government (more specifically, American revolutionaries whose mail got opened and read by English generals.) This hasn’t really stopped, and continues apace under Homeland Security, and the growth of the Internet has made it easier. However, there historically have not been commercial entities with a reason to gather all this data, and that is a freighter-sized-hole in public policy.

How to fix (commercial) privacy law

According to Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, named a “Domestic Privacy Champion” by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, effective policies and standards on data have been around for 30 years, and have been updated by the Obama Administration in the 2012 “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.”

There are seven principles:

1. Individual Control – consumers should have control over what data is collected and how it is used.

2. Transparency – consumers should have easy access to clearly understandable information about privacy and security practices.

3. Respect for context – data should be used in a manner consistent with the way it was collected.

4. Security – consumers have a right to responsible handling of data.

5. Access and accuracy – consumers should be able to access and correct personal data.

6. Focused collection – reasonable limits on the personal data collected and retained.

7. Accountability – appropriate measures should be in place to ensure companies follow the rules.

These are having a hard time in Washington due to the success of these Internet giants, according to Chester.

“America’s number-one growth industry is selling other people’s data,” Chester said. “So these haven’t been translated into law yet.”

You can read more about the CDD efforts at this link, including their recent complaints to the Federal Trade Commission against McDonald’s and General Mills for getting kids to offer up their friends’ personal information online.


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  • http://twitter.com/adamcathcart Adam Cathcart

    Solidly disturbing — thanks for the alarm on this. If they could send me a printed daily newspaper about my own life, that would be interesting, but they don’t have the creativity or the proper motives. So this idea of consumer control over what data is collected strikes me as both reasonable and necessary.

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