MySpace, Facebook and a Half Dozen Other Companies Just Screwed Up. Big Time.

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That headline’s a quote from The Next Web.

It looks like the privacy issues facing Facebook and other social media sites have gained even more national attention and scrutiny after this Wall Street Journal report and a feature on the cover of Time magazine, both of which were published late last week.

For the most part it’s the same old story: our personal information and our children’s personal information is being sold.  If that’s not bad enough, the fact of the matter is that all of those promises made by these sites regarding the safety of our personal information have been proven to be nothing but “cheap talk.”

The WSJ report highlights the methods that Facebook is using in order to generate some revenue, methods that a lot of people feel are unethical and in violation of their privacy rights.   The Wall Street Journal is reporting that some of our largest fears have been realized.

The problem is that the terms of use and privacy policies of, not only Facebook but other sites such as Digg, MySpace, Hi5, and Xanga, let users know that their personal information will never be sent out to third parties unless that user gives consent.  But according to the WSJ report, several large advertising companies such as Google’s Double Click and Yahoo’s Right Media have access to a member’s personal information via the username tied to their profile when they click on ads.

The username, and everything it leads to, is accessible to advertising companies because of the tracking methods that they use by way of social networks (or any website for that matter) to target certain demographics, mainly from a user’s ad clicks.  Even if you accept the fact that advertising is how a lot of Internet companies make a profit, the problem lies in the fact that ad companies like Double Click and Right Media are also able to access information that we didn’t intend for them to have access to.

This unauthorized means-of-entry was first discovered, but not taken seriously, last August when researchers at AT&T Labs evaluated 12 social networking sites.  They found that there were multiple ways that a third-party company could access a user’s personal information.  As a result of their findings, the researchers contacted the sites and gave them the heads up.  Yet here we are nine months later and the problem still exists.

Though this issue is a problem for a lot of social networks, Facebook is facing the most scrutiny, not only because they have the largest user-base, but because they encourage that user-base to make more of their personal information available to the public, hence the recent changes made to the default privacy settings.

As Brad McCarty from TNW said, “So, all of this talk lately about Facebook’s privacy issues become a bit of a moot point, if we can’t even assure privacy by locking down our visible account settings. “

The mainstream attention that this issue has generated has led companies like MySpace and Facebook to make some changes to the way an advertising company tracks a user’s clicks.  Though the changes may be a bit too late (as we’ve seen with all the “Quit Facebook Day” campaigns or the many Facebook groups dedicated to re-establishing FB’s old privacy settings), we still need to realize that the personal information that is made accessible to any given third party is only available because we make it available.  I’m not saying that these websites’ actions are somehow justified, they’re not, but as David Murphy from Maximum PC puts it, “the Internet only knows the information you choose to show it.”

For the most part this news is hardly new news to those who keep up with the latest Internet-safety happenings on a daily basis, but nevertheless, be mindful:

  • Be mindful for yourself, and for your children.
  • Be mindful of what you put into ANY website.
  • Be mindful of what you are giving away when you click on an ad or application in a website.
  • Be mindful that there are sites like Yoursphere that don’t accept those banner ads or applications that your children can click on and give away their personal information.
  • Be mindful that you don’t upload media or information that you wouldn’t want a complete stranger to see, and teach your children to do the same.  This rule is key to not falling victim to the many potential dangers out there concerning your identity, among other things.

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  • The worst offender of cyberbullying is an evil company called Topix. Their forums are “anything goes”, no registration and whatever you post automatically goes out over the internet. The libel with that company is beyond ridiculous. Parents need to warn their children to avoid those forums at all costs.

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