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Easter Surprise: Choices Matter

Today, my family decided to drive 300 miles to visit my parents for the holidays.  We selected snacks for the road, chose a route, and set the cruise control at 65 (wishful thinking, given all the traffic coming out of Washington).

Sure, there were risks to with my decision – whining kids, car trouble, aggressive drivers – but it was worth it.

As I was relaxing after the drive I opened Facebook – an app I decided to put on my tablet – and was surprised to see an article recommended by WSJ Social, an app that I also chose to download from the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal article tells me what happens if I install an app and agree to give it access to the info it requests:  (ready?)  The app can then access that info about me and my Facebook friends.

Just like my car trip today, I have some concern about apps knowing my age, location, education, and interests.    For starters, these apps will be able to tailor ads to my interests.  They might also know the types of things I like to do on Facebook and about the friends I’ve selected there.   Even the Journal acknowledges how obvious this should be:

It is no surprise, of course, that Facebook can gain deep knowledge of people’s lives. It is, after all, a social network where users voluntarily share their names, closest friendships, snapshots, sexual preferences (“interested in men,” “interested in women”), schools attended and countless other details, including moment-to-moment thoughts in the form of “status updates.”

I knew all these things because Facebook virtually beats me over the head with choices and reminders to update my privacy settings to manage what and with whom I am sharing.  Sure, they want me to share, but Facebook also lets me decide how I share, and lets me change my mind anytime about apps on my page.

I think it’s that aspect of personal choice that the Wall Street Journal article seems to gloss over, even though they acknowledge it here:

Facebook is considered to have one of the most advanced privacy models for its apps because it lists nearly every type of data sought—and provides users with the ability to reject apps’ requests for some types of data.

The Journal article reminded me of another recent report that promised fire but delivered only smoke.  Last August, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner made headlines by airing a laundry list of potential Facebook privacy violations, including the creation of “shadow profiles” and the collection of info about non-Facebook users.

But when Ireland’s commission released its findings months later, it declared, “the audit has found a positive approach and commitment on the part of Facebook Ireland to respecting the privacy rights of its users.”

In other words, the facts did not match-up with the headlines.  I expect we’ll see the same in Saturday morning’s Wall Street Journal.

After all, a story not worth running on Friday is probably not worth reading on Saturday.