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Since 1999, we’ve been tracking the issues with Facebook, Google and other social networking privacy issues.  Below is an archive of the various changes and comments, to be viewed as an evolutionary process:

Although Facebook has made it easier to edit, you should still make the assumption that, unless you specifically edit the privacy options, you are probably sharing everything you say, post and comment on with the entire world.  Certainly this is so if you accept the Facebook default privacy settings.  Even if you limit everything to share only with your friends (which is what I recommend), there are still many things you just can’t control. 

For example, while Facebook allegedly allows you to turn off the “instant personalization” feature that allows partner sites like Yelp and Pandora to gain access to personal data, there may still be the equivalent of “community pages” that automatically link to some personal data, like your hometown or college, to topic pages for that town or school.  That’s a proprietary algorithm that can’t be edited.  And anything you share on a friend’s page, where you can’t control their privacy settings, will allow it to be shared further, and cannot ever be taken back, even if you remove the post from your own site.

UPDATE:  On 1/24/11 FaceBook modified its policies and has settled out with Germany, allowing German subscribers to individually modify its Friend Finder service.  On that same date, both Mozilla and Chrome (Google) announced features that would allow users of the Firefox and Chrome browsers to opt-out of being tracked online by third party advertisers through plug-in browser extensions.  In addition, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 has added a feature named Tracking Protection that relies on blacklists to block sites that the users don’t want to share information with.  Microsoft is still routinely collecting and displaying personal information about you on your Hotmail and LiveMail email pages.  And in March, 2011 Google settled its FTC charges of deceptive privacy practices stemming from Google’s Buzz (which automatically included users’ e-mail contacts in their social network) by agreeing to start a privacy program and undergo privacy audits for 20 years.  Buzz is now defunct, but Google+ started in 2011 and has privacy rights by circle, not overall, in response to Facebook’s privacy problems, so you now have a choice (but see changes to the Privacy policy effective 3/1/12, discussed below).  In August, 2011 Facebook also added a tagging option for users to confirm or remove their identity before it appears on their profile.  In late 2011, the U.S. FTC settled charges that Facebook misled users about how their private information would be used, with Facebook agreeing to obtain users’ consent before making “material retroactive changes” to its privacy policy.

UPDATE:  The Facebook changes introduced in September 2011, called “real-time sharing” take away even more privacy.  For many music, TV shows and Hulu, games, news and other sites that you log in with your Facebook identity, that information will automatically be shared to and by Facebook.  Facebook calls this “frictionless sharing”.  is the company's new permissions protocol, which says that apps only need initial approval to post activities on your behalf. Once you install the app and authorize it to post stories on your profile and news feed, it'll never ask for your permission again.  So, if you’re a closet Barry Manilow or Glee or Scrabble fan, everyone will know it. This is obviously good for Facebook and its app makers, as they’ll collect more and more data about your likes and dislikes and track you across the web.  Other than creating a database of your travels, what does it do for you, though?  And, because there is no “like” button to click if you listen to a song through Facebook, it’s automatic, you have no choice.  Moreover, with Facebook’s Open Graph, app activities will now appear in the News Feed, Ticker, and on your Facebook profile. Facebook does this because they hope that by sharing your activity everywhere, your friends will be more likely to install apps you're using, further helping brands increase awareness. To protect yourself, your highest level of security against oversharing will be audience selection:  You do have the opportunity to select an audience with which to share your activity upon the initial installation of an app (In the drop-down list, under "Custom" your friend lists are displayed).   Finally, you can always revoke an app's permissions by going to the App Settings page and clicking the "X" next to the app to delete it, or click "Edit" to change the audience selection.

UPDATE:  BUT THEY JUST CAN’T HELP THEMSELVES:  In December, 2010, Facebook introduced face recognition software (called Tag Suggestions) on every one of the 500 million users accounts (some 20 billion photos, adding 100 million tags each day).  Facebook’s biometrics for each photo allow photo recognition the same as that used by law enforcement, which used the software to pick up 19 “criminals” at last year’s SuperBowl.  Remember, with FaceBook, you’re “opted in” to new features unless you specifically “opt out.” And don’t forget that once you “tag” information on Facebook, it stays on-line (not just on your own computer, like iPhoto) and it stays on-line forever.  In June, 2011, U.S. privacy groups filed complaint with the FTC claiming violation of users’ privacy as well as the European Union.  Same for Google.  In Europe, at least, in late 2012, Facebook no longer makes the photograph tag facial recognition tool available to new users, and will discontinue the old one as of October 15, 2012.  See, Facial Recognition.  In October, 2012 Facebook “confirmed scanning users’ private messages for shared links to web pages with Like buttons, so it can increase the number of corresponding Likes for those pages” (although this only affects social plug-ins off of Facebook and not Facebook likes themselves.)  On the positive side, one of my clients suggested that the feature (when opted-in)  could be used at airports to identify you and speed you through the check-in process. Compare “facial detection” which perceives human faces but does not identify them with “facial recognition” which does identify individuals.  Facial recognition is poised to democratize surveillance, heralding the end of anonymity.  Immersive labs, a NY company, has developed software for digital billboards using cameras to gauge the age range of its viewers; SceneTap, a Chicago company, uses cameras with face detection software to scout local bars, reporting ratios of men to women and other data.  In 2012 Facebook quietly switched your default e-mail address to a extension.  And it also unveiled what’s been called a “stalking app” (a/k/a “Find Friends Nearby”) which can alert you to the presence of other Facebook users physically near you.  You can imagine the nefarious uses this feature can be put to.  Finally, the day before Thanksgiving, 2012, Facebook announced the discontinuation of “voting”.  Since 2009, users had the right to vote on major changes by Facebook.  If 7,000 people commented on a proposal, it would trigger a vote, and if 30% of users voted against the proposed change, Facebook would abandon it.  Now, Facebook claims (a la China) that it’s too big for democracy and will abandon voting.  You can still give feedback, but it’s useless.  But by repealing Facebook Sufferage, it is removing a fundamental Facebook norm, that its members are citizens in a common community, not just numbers.  This isn’t exactly a privacy issue, but it is a restriction of fundamental rights. 

UPDATE:  On 12/12/12, in addition to the discontinuation of voting, Facebook announced new privacy features:  A “request and removal” tool which removes photos from a site entirely, not just tags; More specific app permissions; a privacy icon on the blue toolbar that takes users to the site’s most common privacy tweaks; and an expanded activity log that lets users more easily see information that may have been removed from Timeline but still appear elsewhere on Facebook.  It’ll still be difficult to control all of the information on your account that can be viewed by literally millions of users, but it’s a start.  This “personal tracking” works even if you’re not using the phone, so long as it can be pinged by the Wi-Fi.

And, in February, 2013, Facebook announced that is almost finished developing a smartphone app to be released mid-March which would allow users to track each other, even when the phone is turned off.   This isn’t new.

UPDATE:  In  2014 Facebook again modified it’s method for enabling some privacy settings when it gave users the choice of audience for every post (i.e. Public, Friends, Friends except Acquaintances, Only Me or Custom).  It’s a good idea, but beware that whatever the last post you made, it automatically assumes that you want it set that way for all future posts.  So, if you shared a post publicly, you have to re-set it back to friends for the next post, or else you’ll be going public forever.  Moreover, you’ve got to be careful not to comment on a public post, otherwise your comment will go public as well.  [To determine if the post if public, look for the icon next to the time of the post - a globe means it’s public, a silhouettes mean it’s for friends only.]  Photos can be another problem:  If they’re posted by someone who took the photo, even though you can untag it on your own profile page, it won’t remove it from the photographer’s page unless they take it off.  Theoretically, Facebook may be able to do so if you click on Report/Remove Tag on the photo itself, but by the time they do that, it may have been recopied thousands of times.  Zuckasaurus

Also in 2014, Facebook also introduced what the New York Times dubbed the the “Zuckasaurus,” a friendly little blue dinosaur (see right) which prompts users to review or set their privacy settings throughout the site.


SEARCH ENGINES:  For Google and other search engines, you might also want to change your search settings not to allow the search engines to access and index the information you have marked as visible by “everyone”.  In the Account Settings option, under the FaceBook Ads tab, two options are automatically turned on to share information with advertising networks and friends, so anyone who wants to keep this information private must uncheck the boxes in that tab. Also, to disable “autotagging on Facebook” - click HERE for instructions. Failure to opt out of Google+ sharing of your name and profile photo under the “shared endorsements” settings for your product reviews in Google+ may result in your listing in adverdorsements to the 2 million Google sites on the Internet.  Same for Facebook ads if you’ve “liked” a product on that social networking site.

Google got in hot water in Germany (and also Canada) for what the government called a “blatant disregard for personal privacy” and its admission on May 14, 2010 that its Street View software had been collecting but not necessarily using so-called “payload data” (the actual information being transmitted by users over unprotected WiFi networks, hence the moniker “WiSpy”) further inflamed the issue. That same year, in the U.S. the FTC fined Google $25,000 for impeding it’s own WiSpy investigation, and in 2013, Google paid a fine of $7 million for the WiSpy debacle in which Google company cars taking street-level photos for its online mapping service also had been vacuuming up personal data transmitted over wireless networks that weren't protected by passwords, while denying that it broke any U.S. laws. In late April, 2013, Germany levied a fine of less than $200 million for the wiretapping violations.  [Big Deal:  Google’s NET profits were over $10 billion lst year!]  Google Chrome will reveal all your stored passwords, if the “Show” button on the browser is clicked, exposing all your passwords in plain text.  The Canadian privacy commissioner determined that Google has obtained medical records, financial records, private e-mails and passwords as well.  Despite the Internet companies’ advocation of self-regulation, President Obama has advocated a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that would consolidate the myriad state and federal laws and let consumers know exactly what is going to be done with their personal data on the Internet.  But large companies have a lot of clout and unlike Europe, the law isn’t going anywhere right now.

Apple can be a problem as well.  In June, 2010, it was found that Apple iPhones andiPads with 3G connections have been collecting information about where you’ve been in a “consolidated.db” file as far back as a year earlier.  In April, 2011 Apple released a software update (IOS Ver. 4.3.3) to eliminate this feature, explaining that it was intended to collect information about nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi points, not to collect customers’ personal data or to track their whereabouts. But in February, 2012, it was found that Google had bypassed the blocks in the Safari browser, and was tracking browsing information on iPhones, Macs and iPads. In 2012, Google paid a $22.5 million fine to the FTC, facing allegations that it had been secretly tracking the online activities of Web surfers using Apple’s Safari browser. The Spanish Internet association Apedanica has also sued Google over this issue as well. (Google claimed that it generated $54 billion in economic activity last year - at least some part of this must be due to its data collection techniques, wouldn’t you think?) 

Let’s just summarize by saying that in most of the European countries (Spain, France, Germany) the courts have decided in favor of individual privacy rights online vs. the broader benefits of freedom of speech.  A number of recent cases support this conclusion.  The U.S. doesn’t have the support or protection of federal legislative protection as those companies do and does not appear to be heading in that direction.  But Google does business around the world, and it will have to comply with the law in those countries.


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