What you agreed to when you joined that social network

After the uproar over the Facebook’s Beacon platform, where Facebook used members’ purchases to promote products and services, I decided to check the user agreements and privacy policies of Facebook and Myspace.

One would think that the legal language would be confusing, but the privacy policies are remarkably easy to read. Facebook’s privacy policy lets you know that any information entered in the Facebook can be accessed by third-parties, but that you have strict control over what your Facebook profile displays publicly. Myspace’s privacy policy also recommends that people protect their identities from the prying eyes of the Internet. I was surprised to read that the legalese suggested people should be careful with what they put in their profiles. MySpace goes as far as saying,

Please be aware that whenever you voluntarily post public information to Journals, WebLogs, Message Boards, Classifieds or any other Public Forums that that information can be accessed by the public and can in turn be used by those people to send you unsolicited communications.

To their credit, whether for legal reasons or because they actually care, both of these companies do try warn their users of the potential dangers of revealing too much information to the crazies that inhabit the net.

The user agreement, not to be confused with the privacy policy, typically dictates what a person can legally do with the software or service in question. It also covers the intentions of the company that owns the software, letting you know what will happen to the material you upload into its system.

The above video on the Facebook user agreement gives a quick run down to who has access to your information and what can be done with it. Although Facebook and MySpace do not claim to own rights to any content you add to your profile, the user agreement reserves the right to use or rearrange any part of it for advertising purposes without providing any compensation. This means they can legally use a picture of yourself to promote any of their services or the products of a sponsor and you get nothing but surprised inquiries from your friends when they see you promoting the new Hannah Montana album. This means that you legally agreed to participate in the Beacon platform when you signed up. Short of not joining this social network, there is little to be done. I recommend limiting the material you put on Facebook, especially if the material shows you doing something you would not want your grandmother or employer to see. You never know when Facebook will decide to use that picture of you making out with some random person at a bar in an international advertising campaign.

Another word of warning, each widget and application has its own user agreement. Facebook and MySpace allow third-party developers to create widgets and applications for users to add to their profiles. Each of these little programs has a user agreement of its own. Unbeknownst to you, you could be agreeing to allow the creator of that widget access to your personal information or granting use of your profile’s contents when you add it to your page. Facebook warns,

If you decide to leave the Site and access the Third Party Sites or to use or install any Third Party Applications, Software or Content, you do so at your own risk and you should be aware that our terms and policies no longer govern. You should review the applicable terms and policies, including privacy and data gathering practices, of any site to which you navigate from the Site or relating to any applications you use or install from the site.

This does not go against Facebook’s terms of service agreement with application developers, so be very careful what you agree to. Although this hasn’t happened yet, a devious individual could potentially gather your personal info and change your account when you add a new widget. Facebook has already been hacked in other ways. A hacker figured out how to bypass the privacy filter and see photos otherwise hidden.

Another issue of privacy on Facebook comes from the friend-feed. Every time your profile is updated, an RSS notification goes out to your friends, informing them you’ve changed your profile, added a band to your favorites, or tagged a picture. Most people don’t know this, but when you remove an item from your mini-feed (meaning you try to hide or delete an action so that others do not see it), it only closes the information out from your profile but that info has already been captured by your friends in their friend-feeds. So if someone tags you in an embarrassing photo, everyone already knows about it and there is nothing you can do.

So far all of this doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Embarrassing photos happen, but now more people see them. It is just a couple laughs between friends. Unfortunately, a lot can happen if someone gets a hold of your personal information and children and teenagers are a the greatest risk. A Pew’s American Life study showed that 87% of people under the age of 20 are online, and that 64% of teenagers participate in social networks. Without knowing better, many of these children provide their personal information over the net, exposing them to pedophiles and stalkers. There have been several incidents involving a minor meeting person and being abducted or worse.

But their is hope for a better, safer generation of net users. The state of Virginia now teaches online safety as part of their curriculum, and other states are likely to follow suit. Younger parents that grew up online understand the risks and can help ensure their children’s safety by letting them know the dangers of sharing too much information with a stranger. Unlike when I was first on the web, there are now areas designated for children. The largest social network for children, Neopets, provides a safe environment for children to interact with each and play games. And now the FBI has a task force to monitor help keep kids on the net safe from prowlers, scammers and would be criminals.

Criminals are not the only ones that are after our personal information. The video above also mentions the Information Awareness Office (IAO). This organization, setup by the United States military DARPA program, originally gathered information on all individuals that used the Internet through their IP address, Facebook accounts, MySpace pages and anywhere else they’ve published information. Its intent was to create profile on all net users to fight terrorism and cyber crimes. One of the initiatives collected photos that could be used to identify and monitor your actions using every dat surveillance systems, such as traffic cameras and closed circuit security imaging. A couple civil liberties groups protested and the project was quietly halted. In all probability, this type of monitoring has intensified and we helped the government compile these profiles when we joined Facebook. According to the U.S.A. Patriot Act, neither companies do not have to disclose if the government has requested customer information or if they did in fact hand over user information.

Where does that leave us? In all probability, we’re likely being tracked by the government at all hours of the day. Our IP addresses reveal our physical locations and we unknowingly create profiles for law enforcement agencies to make sure we stay in line. The ramifications of using social networks probably go much further than what I can find online. We should be very careful with the information we provide on the net because we never know who is watching.

Update: The BBC did a news report on Facebook applications stealing your personal info.

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