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.
FaceCloak, implemented as a plug-in for Mozilla’s Firefox browser, allows a user to designate–using two “at” signs (“@@”), by default–what information should be encrypted and only made available to friends. A FaceCloak user holds a secret access key but also sends two other keys to her friends. Those keys are then used to access the real information, which is held on a separate server. While the same concept could be used on other social networks–such as Twitter and MySpace–Hengartner and his colleagues focused on the largest provider.
Similar tools are being developed by other academic teams to address the privacy issues plaguing social networks. A group of researchers from Cornell University created another Firefox plug-in, called None of Your Business (NOYB), that encrypts profile information so that it can only be read by a small group of friends. And two researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a Facebook application called flyByNight that encrypts users’ data.
Unlike those projects, however, FaceCloak works with any number of contacts and does not rely on the cooperation of the social-network provider. The University of Waterloo researchers attempt to hide which users are encrypting their data with FaceCloak by replacing the hidden data with arbitrary text taken from sources on the Internet. “Users who submit encrypted information stand out, both to Facebook and to other users who can see the profiles, and therefore might raise suspicion,” Hengartner says. “By using fake information, we can avoid this problem.”
There are still some major issues, however. Images are not yet supported by FaceCloak and the third-party hosting server used could potentially be compromised. Moreover, a FaceCloak user still has to be careful, Hengartner says. “The same problem arises in real life,” he says. “When you tell a friend some personal information about you, you need to trust your friend to deal with this information responsibly. If she misbehaves, you can’t erase the information from her brain.”