Is Your Facebook Profile As Private As You Think? A growing number of companies are trawling social networks looking to scrape up data about you and your friends. For instance, that Facebook quiz you just took? It opened up your photos, political views --- even your sexual preference — to the stranger who wrote it.
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Is Your Facebook Profile As Private As You Think?

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Is Your Facebook Profile As Private As You Think?

Is Your Facebook Profile As Private As You Think?

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Now the second story in our series The End of Privacy. We're taking closer look at whether privacy is still possible in the digital age. And we're joined once again by NPR's Martin Kaste here at NPR West. Martin, welcome.

MARTIN KASTE: Oh, thank you.

BLOCK: Martin, yesterday we were talking about a notion that you call privacy fatalism.

KASTE: Yeah. I was talking about this notion that I've gotten from a lot of the people I interview for stories about privacy, about sort of a resignation, a sense that a lot of people have that things are spinning out of control. They can't really control their privacy anymore in this high-tech era.

But I should add that not everyone feels that way and especially when you talk to younger people, you get a very different message. For instance, this is Seattle's nightclub district where I recently went to talk to some 20-somethings about their privacy. We're outside some bars there, and I stopped a couple and asked them about their privacy and they said they weren't worried about it. And all of them, every single one of them gave the same reason.

Mr. COEN METTER(ph): Facebook.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. METTER: It's the social trend of today. Giving out information is social.

BLOCK: So, who are these young people, Martin?

KASTE: Well, that's Coen Metter and his friend Brian Liston(ph). And I know that we've heard a lot about this so-called Facebook generation, how everybody under a certain age is an online exhibitionist and so on. The thing is they're not really. Listen carefully to how Brian Liston talks about their online exposure.

Mr. LISTON: You know, I bet you if you walk up and down the street, I bet you 75 to 85 percent of the people will be - have a Facebook account. And if they're in the Seattle network, anybody else in the Seattle network, as long as their account's not private, can view their information.

KASTE: Did you catch that - as long as their account's not private? There's an assumption there. The assumption is if you set your privacy options right, you can limit your exposure to just your friends. That's part of the appeal of social networks. But the thing is, it's not always true.

(Soundbite of electronic phone ring)

Mr. CHRIS CONLEY (American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California): Hello, this is Chris.

KASTE: I made an Internet phone call to Chris Conley at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. He wanted to show me one way that a stranger might peek at your private social network: The Facebook quiz.

Mr. CONLEY: These quizzes are very common. If you go on Facebook, you see all of your friends have taken a quiz or several quizzes, depending on how much time they might spend online.

KASTE: A quiz isn't just a quiz. It's a program written by some company or stranger you've never heard of. Programs can be programmed. In this case, they can be programmed to look at your account while you're busily answering questions.

Mr. CONLEY: Maybe it's what superhero is my dog? You think that all you're doing is answering a few seemingly innocent questions, you know, can he catch a Frisbee, does he wear a cape. But, in fact, you're opening up your entire profile and almost all of your personal information to whoever wrote the quiz.

KASTE: To demonstrate this, Conley wrote his own Facebook quiz. When you run the quiz, it scrapes your information, then it shows you what it got.

Mr. CONLEY: On my profile, I can see my name, my hometown, my birthday, my religious and political views.

KASTE: Harvard ballroom alumni. You're a ballroom dancer?

Mr. CONLEY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KASTE: Facebook is not pleased with Conley's quiz.

Mr. TIM SPARAPANI (Director, Public Policy, Facebook): So, I guess what I can say is it is technologically possible to write an application that abuses users' privacy, as does the ACLU's quiz.

KASTE: Tim Sparapani is director of public policy at Facebook.

Mr. SPARAPANI: But when that happens, we find out about it and we take action to enforce our terms of service. And then we take legal action to scrape back data that's been unlawfully or inappropriately gathered from our users.

KASTE: Sparapani won't cite a specific case. But he says this kind of policing actually makes Facebook safer than the plain Internet. Still, the company has promised, under pressure from Canada's privacy commissioner, to give users more control over what kind of information the quizzes get. But computer security expert Nathan Hamiel says Facebook quizzes are almost beside the point. The real issue, he thinks, is the false assumption of privacy that people have on social networks.

Mr. NATHAN HAMIEL (Security Expert, Hexagon Security Group): When you're talking about using social networks, there's a perceived safety. So, people are a lot more loose with their information because they don't realize the trust they're putting in to this application developer.

KASTE: So, people open up more on social networks. And that kind of candor is worth money. Auren Hoffman is CEO of Rapleaf, a company whose computers are constantly searching what he calls the social Web.

Mr. AUREN HOFFMAN (CEO, Rapleaf): We look at lots of different piece of data on the Internet, those include things like blogs and forums and discussion boards, social networks, review sites. All those things combined can give you a really good picture of a particular person.

KASTE: Rapleaf's computers crawl only the public parts of social Web sites. Even so, it claims to have enough information to have insights on almost 400 million people worldwide. Those insights, as they call them, are sold to marketers. And Hoffman says that's a good thing. Information, whether it's credit scores or blog postings, makes the economy go.

Mr. HOFFMAN: If we didn't have data, our world wouldn't work. You'd have to put money down to get, like, a cable television or a cell phone or to get any of those things that we take for granted today.

KASTE: But do we want those things affected by information from the social Web? Those photos of you on Facebook, for example, smoking and drinking at parties. What effect will they have someday on, say, your health insurance premiums or your car loans? It's a question that gives even some 20-somethings pause, like Coen Metter outside that bar in Seattle.

Mr. METTER: If one day I can't get an anonymous drink anymore, I think that'll be sad.

KASTE: For now, that anonymous drink is still possible, just pay with cash and don't mention it online.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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