Senator Charles Schumer's request last week that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provide guidelines for online social networks' use of private information is well founded. Although the millions of consumers who use services like Facebook consider them free, they do exact a cost -- the loss of control over one's personal information. The new data-sharing policies Facebook announced on April 21 only inflate that cost.
In a just-released report on social networks, Consumer Reports found that posting personal information on networks like Facebook, the largest social network, can threaten you and your family in a variety of ways:
It can expose you to cybercrime. Forty-two percent of adult Facebook users said they post their full birth date and more than half said they post at least one piece of highly personal information, according to Consumer Reports's national 2010 State of the Net survey. Those are valuable pieces of information online thieves can use.
You can jeopardize your family's safety. Among Facebook users with children at home, 31% post their children's names and 51% their children's photos, the same survey found. That's risky, considering that social networks have been known to harbor child predators.
It can expose your home. Seven percent of adult Facebook users posted their street address, 4% their home phone number, and 3% information indicating when they are away from home. Disclosing such information can invite burglars.
Your computer's security can be placed at risk. Of the 18 million adult Facebook users who used the site's apps (games and quizzes), 22% hadn't given much thought to those apps' security, while another 17% were confident that the apps are secure. Meanwhile, based on the survey, we estimate that 1.8 million computers were infected by apps obtained through one or another social network during the past year.
It may expose you to abuse. Roughly 9% of social network users experienced some type of online abuse in the past year, according to the survey, including harassment, threats, scams, and someone hijacking their account or their friends list. Yet nearly one in four adult Facebook users weren't aware of or didn't choose to use the service's privacy controls.
Whether it's your race, religion, or lifestyle, the unintended dissemination of personal information can profoundly affect every aspect of your life. For example, 45% of employers reported in a June 2009 CareerBuilder survey that they use social networking sites to screen potential employees. (More than 2,600 hiring managers participated in the survey.) And a number of cases have come to light in which insurance providers or lawyers have used personal information obtained from a consumer's social network page to discredit them.
Facebook does offer privacy controls that you can use to limit access to some personal information. But the sensitive information Facebook manages is so voluminous and complex that it's difficult for the average consumer to comprehend it all, much less master an array of privacy controls.
The new features Facebook announced on April 21 only compound the problem. For example, the personalization pilot program, which passes personal information to Facebook's partner sites, requires you to "opt-out," meaning that Facebook will disseminate such information unless you object. That seems to contradict one of Facebook's founding principles, namely that "people should have the freedom to decide with whom they will share their information."
We agree with Senators Schumer, Bennet, Franken, and Begich, who last week asked Facebook to provide opt-in mechanisms for information sharing, instead of requiring users to go through complicated processes to protect their privacy. And we urge the FTC to make sure social networks aren't misleading consumers and to set strong privacy guidelines for those networks.