Social networks are rife with examples of users failing to understand the privacy implications of posting sensitive information online.
In February, for example, school officials in Wisconsin suspended a teacher who posted on Facebook a picture of herself pointing a gun at the camera. In April, the Swiss insurance company Nationale Suisse fired an employee after she called in sick and then posted updates on the same site. Others have raised concerns about users handing so much personal information to social-networking companies themselves.
Now, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario have developed a browser plug-in to help users keep their information private from prying eyes and from social-network providers as well. Urs Hengartner, an assistant professor of computer science, and his colleagues say the plug-in replaces sensitive information in a user’s profile and news feed with meaningless text that can only be unscrambled by trusted friends or contacts. Dubbed FaceCloak, the tool assures its users that sensitive data stays private, Hengartner says. “If you have a particular illness, you might want to allow only your friends to see that,” he says. “This leaves it up to the user to decide what information to keep away from Facebook.”
The tool is the latest shot in a battle between social networks and privacy-conscious users. Most users of Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks remain unaware of the privacy implications of posting personal information to such sites, says Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information systems and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
In 2005, Acquisti and fellow CMU researcher Ralph Gross showed that nearly 80 percent of Facebook users revealed their birthday publicly and the majority provided public access to their real-world addresses–information that could be used to commit identity theft. “You feel like you are talking to a friend casually in a conversation, but in reality you are publicizing information in a forum where it will stay for a long time,” Acquisti says. “Privacy is not the first thing you think of when you use a social network.”
Nowadays more people appear to be privacy conscious. In a more recent study, Acquisti’s group found that 30 to 40 percent of users change the default privacy settings to take greater control of their information. But social networks themselves have not been good protectors of privacy, Acquisti says, because monetizing personal information is a potential gold mine. This is demonstrated by Facebook’s Beacon advertising service, which allows affiliates to tailor advertising according to users’ activities on Facebook and beyond.