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Facebook offers poor personal data protection

Researchers fear that our personal and consumer data protection is being compromised by the growth of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

On behalf of the Norwegian Consumers’ Council, Petter Bae Brandtzaeg and Marika Lüders of SINTEF have been gathering knowledge of the challenges that new media services are facing us with.

The researchers have carried out a questionnaire survey of Norwegian Internet users, analysed media trends, interviewed Facebook users and examined the conditions of use of important net-sites.

“What we have found is that social media are becoming ever more widely used,” says Petter Bae Brandtzaeg. “Sixty-six per cent of Norwegian Internet users are now members of Internet communities; 60 per cent are on Facebook. Twitter use has risen to nine per cent, and YouTube and Wikipedia are the most widely user-created services overall.

Aware of the risks, but willing to take them

One of the conclusions drawn by the two researchers is that Facebook offers relatively poor personal data protection – both via the service itself, its design, the level of competence of its users and their lack of awareness of self-protection measures.

“What information is put on the net is completely up to the individual, but unfortunately, few people are aware of all the potential consequences,” says Marika Lüders. “For example, informants know very little about how Facebook  exploits personal information for commercial purposes.”

In the course of the interviews, Facebook users admitted that they do not know much about how personal information can be utilised, but that they want to have control over such use. At the same time, they find it reassuring that so many other people are users, and that they have heard of few unfortunate cases. They post their personal information without finding out where it might end up, and they are often very surprised about what other people are capable of publishing on the site.

“Facebook has become an important arena for social participation in our personal environment . However, it is becoming ever more easy to gather and aggregate personal information, outside the control of users,” says Brandtzaeg.

Negative consequences

It is not just advertisers and the publicity industry that can make money by downloading relevant information about what sort of music we like and what interests we have.

Losing control over our personal information means that it can also be used against us – for example, when we apply for a job. Our zone of privacy is shrinking, at the same time as the risk of identity theft and the scope of unwanted contacts are both widening.

Media landscape of the future

The two SINTEF researchers believe that the flow of information will grow even more in the future, and will become less and less easy to grasp and more chaotic. A wave of new Internet media – such as Google Wave and mobile smart telephones – is coming at full speed, and both people and objects will be woven together ever more closely.

“This can make us even more vulnerable to failures of personal data protection,” says Marika Lüders. “Most users are still unaware of the scope of information flow today. And no-one sits down to read intricate “Conditions of use”. We are steadily handing over more control of our personal information to others.”