How do you get people to care about privacy?
People care about it in offline settings. At home, you know which window shades you prefer to draw closed at which times. At work, you might discuss Saturday night's exploits with your cubicle-mate and not with your boss. Few can tell online; I can't. I avoid networks like blippy that share purchases based on credit card data, and I turned off Google Latitude's option of automatically broadcasting my location from mobile devices, but I'm admittedly inconsistent and too laissez-faire with most other forms of social media.
The latest debates over Facebook's privacy policies may not last, but there's a lot of good coming out of the dialogue. If Facebook won't clearly explain how it publicizes consumers' information, others are trying to fill the void. Most resources have the echo-chamber effect, only reaching people who care about privacy and social media to begin with. But if enough of these echoes escape and start ricocheting around the water coolers where more Facebook users hang out, then there's a chance to bring the discussion to people who wouldn't intentionally look for it.
Let's look at several attempts to raise awareness about these privacy issues, and how likely they'll break through the echo chamber:
I keep returning to these illustrations of how Facebook's default privacy settings have changed over the years. In 2005, userswould share some profile info with friends and their networks. By 2007, basic information was shared with all Facebook users. Now, the default settings allow almost all information to be shared with the entire Internet.
I've spent far longer studying the diagrams here than the text, and it's striking going back and forth between the 2005 and 2010 images. If you've seen anything this clear in mainstream media, please share it in the comments, as these infographics are screaming for more exposure.
ReclaimPrivacy.org (via Anthony Haney on Facebook)
Using a bookmarklet you can drag to your browser's bookmarks, log into Facebook and the link will tell you how secure your privacy settings are. As I continue to violate best practices for maintaining privacy, you can see a screen shot of ReclaimPrivacy's review of my own settings. Somehow I managed to block all known applications that could leak my personal information, which must have been a fluke. All of my other settings are rated "caution" or "insecure."
The best part of the tool is that it fixes some of your settings for you. Yet will you really trust a random tool more than Facebook? OK, maybe. Beyond coming from a largely unknown source, the bookmarklet approach will turn off more novice Internet users. It does work, though.
What if you could shame people into changing their privacy settings? Openbook searches public status updates for potentially questionable phrases people may share on Facebook. I've linked directly to one of the tamer ones, but if you clear the search field and search for something random, what comes up may not fly on network television. Many of the status updates are harmless, but some could be damaging. Searching the phrase "don't tell anyone," someone noted how she's playing hooky from her job, and her profile page says what school district she works for. That won't help her case for tenure if her district faces budget cuts this year.
I'm not sure how many people will see this, but using live examples of real people makes it easy to relate to them, and if you don't change your settings because
of it, you may well think twice about what you post on Facebook.
Tired of changing your settings? Are you one of ten people who left Facebook in the past month and now have your picture in a major national newspaper as the sign of a trend? Then do I have the network for you! Join Diaspora, "the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network." If that's not the tagline for the next 500 million-user social network, I don't know what is. About 5,000 chipped in nearly $200,000 to make this project happen, well above the $10,000 goal. Aiming low has its perks.
Sorry, but I don't know how that anti-Facebook angst translates into a Facebook rival. People weren't looking to leave Six Degrees or Friendster or MySpace; they just kept finding something better and brought more of their friends. There are limits to that scale, so soon enough investors will seek social networks for nematodes or bacteria just to hit growth projections.
I'm not convinced any of these approaches are enough, and the privacy issue is hardly unique to social media. I know my bank has had digital security breaches, but I keep my money there, even if I change my password every so often. There are marketing services firms focused on direct mail and other channels that will probably collect far more data than Facebook ever will.
Facebook gets more attention, though, because it's new, it's massive, and we have more control over it than we're used to. We can do something about it. It's the monster under the bed we can overcome by shining a flashlight down below and realizing we have nothing to fear.
Yet sometimes it's more fun to stay on the bed, worry ourselves to sleep, and wait until the morning comes, when we know for sure there's no monster that can hurt us.