Popular Tumblr Highlights Facebook Graph Search Privacy Fears

Privacy concerns related to Facebook's Graph Search are beginning to hit home today, as a Tumblr of "Actual Facebook Graph Searches" gained attention last night and this morning, but privacy experts think Facebook showed increased regard for user privacy with its launch of search.

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social networks, social media, privacy, online privacyPrivacy concerns related to Facebook’s Graph Search are beginning to hit home today, as a Tumblr of “Actual Facebook Graph Searches” gained attention last night and this morning, but privacy experts think Facebook showed increased regard for user privacy with its launch of search.

Tom Scott launched the Tumblr yesterday, featuring clever searches such as Muslim men who like men and married people who like prostitutes. The searches rely mostly on users’ basic profile information and pages they’ve liked.

Scott has made a name for himself poking fun at Facebook; performing, for example, an act called “I Know What You Did Five Minutes Ago,” in which he calls a user from the stage and reveals what he knows about him.

But Scott also says Facebook has “good privacy settings.”

“I’m not sure I’m making any deeper point about privacy: I think, at this point, we’re basically all just rubbernecking – myself included,” he explained on the Tumblr.

Still, he says many people don’t fully understand how privacy settings work.

“If it’d be awkward if it was put on a screen in Times Square, don’t put it on Facebook. Oh, and check your privacy settings again,” Scott noted.

Privacy experts generally agreed that Facebook hasn’t violated users’ privacy with Graph Search, but said privacy on the social network continues to erode.

“Your privacy settings do govern the results on the search, so we can’t really say they’re disregarding people’s choices,” said Sarah Downey, a privacy analyst with Abine, which provides privacy software and updates.

“If there was ever a time to really lock down, that time is now,” she added.

Justin Brookman, director for Center for Democracy and Technology’s consumer privacy project, noted that in the lead-up to the Graph Search launch, Facebook asked users them to view their own information as it can be seen publicly.

“They’ve been doing a good job of messaging around hey, maybe you don’t know who you’re really sharing with,” he said.

Brookman thinks Facebook has learned, through some painful missteps, to take user privacy more seriously.

“There’s definitely more pressure on them. They’ve felt heat about this from regulators and from users, and they’ve lost a lot of good faith from users,” he said.

Still, Graph Search makes shared content easier to find and can display it, as Scott’s Tumblr shows, in contexts that the user might find troubling.

“My initial reaction is, as a user I’m kind of glad it’s there, but I do recognize that there will be scenarios in which it will expose information to people in ways they didn’t expect,” Brookman said.

Downey pointed to another problem: Graph Search takes spontaneous interaction and archives it permanently.

“You choose to like something, and then you forget about it. This will make it so people who are searching for you won’t forget about it. You get no chance to explain yourself,” she said.

And with the birth of search, potential employers and potential dates may increasingly turn to Facebook to vet candidates, as industry handicappers have noted.

Particularly as Facebook amasses a longer record of users’ lives in its databases, search could turn up results that no longer reflect a user’s opinion. Downey also frets that as Facebook continues to tinker with privacy settings, it could disclose in search content that users may not expect to be public.

“Facebook privacy settings are so notoriously complicated and they’re always changing, so reassuring people that their stuff is protected by Facebook’s settings is not really very reassuring,” she said.

But the most likely scenario is that Facebook will continue to improve Graph Search, and as it does, users will continue to share their day-to-day lives.

“Think about where it will be in 10 years if people are still using Facebook. There will be a lot of stuff on there,” Brookman said.

The data that Facebook has sorted for the first iteration of Graph Search is messy, as observers have noted: It hasn’t been structured to work in the way that the search tool uses it. But as the social network builds new features that are designed to work with search, its results will get cleaner.

Cleaner results, while good for Facebook and prospective employers, may shine a sharper spotlight on shared content users would rather forget.