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Guess What? Your Facebook Account Isn’t as Private as You Think

We’ve long suspected that nothing you put on Facebook is truly private, and a startup company just threw that idea wide open.  Others have been proving the flimsiness of the privacy features for a while, but Five Labs just inadvertently underlined the fact that you may want to comport yourself on Facebook as if everything you write and every image you upload is accessible to everyone.  Meaning, everything you put on your profile page, everything you put in your secret group chats, everything you put on that site.  Period.


I read about Five Labs tool in the New York Times.  You sign in with your Facebook account and give them access to “your public profile, friend list, email address, custom friends lists, News Feed, relationships, status updates, current city, photos and news activity and your friends’ status updates and current cities.”  You know, just a little bit of information.  And they in turn will tell you about your personality.  Just in case you didn’t know about your personality simply by being the only person in the world actually privy to what goes on inside your head.

Did you catch that?

“Your friends’ status updates and current cities.”

In other words, if I use this tool and give them access to my Facebook feed (an act that many people have done since the story appeared in the New York Times), they have access to your status updates and where you live.  And really, I’m getting the feeling that Five Labs may have been modest when they stated how far they could reach into the site.  Can they see my friends’ images?  What about my friends’ likes or anything on their about page such as their place of employment?

But here’s the thing.  Five Labs reach shouldn’t be possible.  I have the strongest privacy settings on my account.  According to Facebook, those status updates should only be accessible to my friends.  Except that we’ve long known that isn’t the case.

And my friend proved that this week.

She used the Five Labs tool.  And she discovered that I was one of the ten friends on her list that she was most closely aligned with, personality-wise.  They determined this by analyzing my feed and rating me (by which, I mean, that they rated all of her friends) so they could rate her against her friend list.  Except I have those pesky privacy settings which should stop someone who is not my friend from seeing my status updates.  Yet this app clearly could access my updates because they told her that she was closely aligned with me based on my word choice in my status updates and what I often write about.  She posted the results to her timeline, tagging me in the process.  And I looked at the screen, seeing what I knew in theory based on reading the New York Times article come true in actuality: my privacy settings were like a flimsy piece of cardboard in lieu of the metal door with the deadbolt lock that Facebook implied I had when I ticked off that “only friends” box.

And that sort of sucked.

And this comes on the heels of Facebook letting us know that, hey, they’re going to share your Web browsing history in order to bring you better ads.  As well as the company’s comment that “the privacy of [your] Friends List is actually dependent on the privacy settings of [your] connections.”  In other words, Facebook could not say this any clearer: treat their site as you would any public forum.  Don’t upload images you wouldn’t want everyone to be able to see, don’t write status updates you wouldn’t want everyone to read, and for the love, don’t put one iota of trust in privacy settings.

But at its heart, Five Labs hits on the catch-22.  They’re giving you this information about your personality so you can see how and why certain companies market certain items to you.  But because I know this is how Facebook operates, I only offer up the most basic, insubstantial fluff from my brain; the sort of things I wouldn’t mind anyone in the world reading.  So how close can a site like Facebook get to knowing the full me, the true me?  As it stands right now, I have ads for a restaurant chain I would never eat at, two clothing stores I would never shop at, and an offer for diapers which… I think we all know… is not really necessary in my world.  I could give them better information about me so they could serve me better ads, but… I don’t really want better ads.

Which is to say that I don’t mind ads at all.  As I said on Neil’s recent post, there are cases — such as ads for books — where I would welcome ads.  There is an ad on the left side of my blog, paying for this site.  I am sometimes grateful for ads for letting me know about a product I may have missed otherwise.  When I’m at BlogHer, I always swing through the sponsor room, mostly because the sponsors know their demographic, and there is usually a handful of businesses I’m deeply interested in hearing from.  But Facebook, general sea of every single person I’ve encountered in my life?  You have no clue what to serve up.  And by default, you’ve lost my attention.  I have a much greater chance of seeing an ad that matters to me when I visit a personal blog (because, again, advertisers tend to know their demographic) vs. Facebook where they’re trying to use fancy algorithms to analyze content that doesn’t matter deeply to me.

If my words matter deeply to me, they end up on my blog.

My words on Facebook are easy come/easy go.

This algorithm and Facebook’s algorithm (and by that matter, all these algorithms out there that we’re putting stock into proving something about ourselves or our reach) simply analyzes what we thought to put on a screen.  It analyzes an incomplete picture and assumes that it hits something close to the truth, even though what we put online may have nothing to do with what is most important to us off-screen.

Companies want to use algorithms to know what can’t be known.  It can’t really be known by two people living in close proximity for years and years.  The elusiveness of motivation, the incomprehensible why… all the unknown elements of a personality that drive us to make the choices we make.  I really fear the weight we give these things.  I don’t mean that I fear Facebook or Twitter trying to figure me out.  I just fear regular human beings believing that an algorithm can reveal something as complex as a personality.  That we can analyze a bunch of numbers and figure out someone’s reach.

For the love, please don’t log into Five Labs.  You don’t need to give away your privacy and your friends’ privacy to have someone tell you something less accurate than what you already know.

And you may want to rethink what you post on Facebook.


1 a { 06.15.14 at 11:23 am }

That’s what I was talking about last week, sort of. You share something with a friend based on the theory that they are trustworthy people. Then they inadvertently let something slip, and the whole world knows something that you didn’t intend. The social contract is that you don’t say anything about anyone else but reality is…no one owns the story, so if it leaves your head, it’s in the public domain.

2 Mel { 06.15.14 at 2:08 pm }

But in this case, your friends may not even be aware they are affecting you. My friend used this app to amuse herself. She had no clue that she was giving MY information in addition to her information. So now a startup called Five Labs has all of my status updates, about info, etc. Even though I have the highest privacy settings on Facebook.

3 a { 06.15.14 at 3:18 pm }

Right – and I think that can just as easily happen in real life too. Like recently, some coworkers who work in different parts of the state were discussing people that they knew in common. One poorly phrased question sent the discussion to a whole different place, which I understood because I am aware of a private situation. My coworker who issued the poorly phrased question probably inadvertently confirmed something about which he is actually unaware. But that’s how it works sometimes – all the effort you make to safeguard your privacy can be easily undone because you interact with other people. If you don’t interact, all people know is that you’re kinda weird and antisocial.

4 Serenity { 06.15.14 at 4:15 pm }

Ugh. I clicked on that last week because I was interested – literally a day after a discussion with my best friend where I told her how I didn’t really care if companies gathered my information. Except, yeah, I don’t care about what they do with the information that shared in my feed and wall, etc, but I do care about what they actually do with the information they gather of my son, and my husband.

I have such a love/hate relationship with social media. On one hand, I have gotten to connect with people – both online and in real life! – that I either wouldn’t have met or kept in touch with. But then I read posts like this and I want to quit it altogether.

And as an aside, I didn’t even GET an analysis – it said “I didn’t post enough.” So they got all the information they wanted, apparently including my friends – without being able to analyze me. I thought it was good at the time, but maybe not.


5 A. { 06.15.14 at 4:22 pm }

Gah, it’s like a drug addiction where I know it’s bad for me but I keep going back. I just deleted the app from my phone for what must be the 96th time. I think I’ll go read some Orwell now.

6 Queenie { 06.15.14 at 10:10 pm }

I have to laugh at the FB ads. They are like the opposite of what would appeal to me. And I agree–people should treat FB like it’s totally public. I don’t put pic’s of the kids up at all. They can’t be trusted.

7 Mel { 06.16.14 at 8:54 am }

I often think of Orwell when I’m online. That’s probably a bad sign… right?

8 Mrs T (missohkay) { 06.16.14 at 9:47 am }

I like personality tests because I think you can learn from some of them, but I had to laugh when I read about Five Labs last week because most people aren’t putting their whole lives on FB (and if they ARE putting their whole lives on FB, I am not friends with them because that annoys me). I post things on FB that I find quirky or funny or that I want to advocate about which is such a tiny sliver of my personality!

9 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 06.16.14 at 10:58 am }

A guy who does social media for a living told me recently you shouldn’t put anything up on Facebook that you don’t want the whole world to be able to see and read. He’s a pretty racist guy and no disgruntled hoards seem to have driven him from his cosy expat existence so I guess he lives by that. And he is the expert. But in case of doubt this does seem to prove it.

10 Lori Lavender Luz { 06.16.14 at 11:30 am }

I’ve mostly operated as if nothing were ever really private on FB (and on other social sites). Partly it’s because my dad drilled into our heads “Don’t do it or say it if you don’t want it as a front-page headline in the newspaper!” (Showing my age there.)

But to have a concrete example like this leaves me shaking my head.

As for the algorithm, well, I still hardly know myself, so how could a computer figure me out? Especially, as you say, the computer gets only an edited version of me. GIGO.

11 Jenny { 06.16.14 at 1:55 pm }

I read this about half an hour after taking the Five Labs test myself (mostly just to amuse myself and see how accurate it was). I was pretty surprised to see that it generated a list of like-minded friends. I had no idea it would be gathering information from them, too. I’ve made it a rule not to post anything too personal on Facebook – though I do share family photos. As a result, my Five Labs test results were wildly inaccurate! 🙂

12 Ann Z { 06.16.14 at 2:46 pm }

Like Lori, I tend to operate under the assumption that fb is not private at all. In fact, I post nearly everything except photos as a public status just so I don’t ever fall into the trap of believing something is private.

I did play around with the Five Labs test and was at first surprised that it looked at friends’ statuses, but if it makes it any better, it appears to only uses public statuses, so it based it’s assessment on a huge number of my words (because I post nearly everything public), but my friends’ assessments were often based on something like less than 100 words (and my friends post quite often, just not publicly). So you’re not giving it access to anything they didn’t already have access to.

13 Tiara { 06.17.14 at 7:08 am }

I had to step back from FB a few months back. After my Aunt passed (she lived on FB) it hurt too much to see the updates from her friends (who’d friended me) etc. The longer I am away from it, the less I miss it. Then I read something like this & never want to go back. I had thought of reducing my friends list to strictly family but realize that wouldn’t matter anyway…

14 Persnickety { 06.17.14 at 8:49 pm }

While not surprising, still scary. One of the biggest privacy issues with FB is other people. Which is one of its features too, but anyone wanting to know what I am doing only has to be friends with my husband who is both less discriminating on friend requests and a more frequent publisher.

15 Battynurse { 06.25.14 at 3:11 am }

Yuck. I recently blocked a few people as I didn’t want them seeing anything I post. Since I’m sure others can see stuff even if they aren’t in my friends list, I try to not post anything that would come back to haunt me.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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