It’s difficult to feel sorry for mega-zillionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but you have to admit that his social network is in a bit of a bind. With an upcoming Initial Public Offering (IPO) which could value the company on the high side of $100 billion (yes, with a b) its less than stellar history of privacy protection may be placing the 2012 Wall Street debut between a stock and a hard place. On one side are the 800+ million Facebookers who would really rather not divulge every single aspect of what they share on profiles and posts they believe to be private. On the other side are the advertisers who consider every byte of “private” information to be an invaluable data mining motherlode. How deftly Facebook manages to keep these opposing parties appeased may determine the extent of success the stratospheric IPO can achieve.
Mysteriously Targeted Ads
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently released an investigative report that the agency conducted on the world’s largest social network. The FTC called out Facebook on a number of duplicitous policies violating user privacy after reassuring them that they would do nothing of the sort. The most critical failing was in sharing personal data marked as private with advertisers. Any Facebook user who would innocuously post various key words and phrases on profiles or posts would find that they were now presented with “mysteriously” but very accurately targeted ads. “I love to play hockey [Bauer], jetski [SeaDoo], and jog [Nike], then relax [La-Z-Boy] watching football [NFL] on my big screen TV [Samsung]…”
In announcing a settlement, the FTC stated that the social network "deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public." The litany of privacy violations committed by the social giant are outlined within the pages of the FTC report and cover everything from making a vast amount of data that the users had directly specified as private visible to anyone on the net, and continuing to display photos and videos from deactivated accounts. The FTC excoriated Facebook executives for repeatedly stating that they did nothing of the kind but then were caught with their hand in the http cookie jar, so the settlement calls for biennial privacy audits conducted by the government with fines of $16,000 per violation per day. If the fines were levied on each conceptual violation then Facebook could theoretically just consider it a relatively minor cost of doing business. However, these fines will be applied on a user by user basis, so they could swiftly bankrupt the social network.
It seems that Facebook is either consciously or inadvertently missing the point of the FTC accusations. With the introduction of Seamless Sharing, the social network is turning back the clock to 2007’s Beacon service, which was shut down after a class action lawsuit was filed. The differences between Beacon and Seamless Sharing are… actually next to nothing. Facebook’s new/old application will stalk you across the internet posting everything you do and everywhere you go. If you don’t want your friends, family and coworkers finding out that you visited xxx rated sites, listened to polka, watched a chick flick or checked out instructions on how to poison your spouse and get away with it, then Seamless Sharing is not for you.
Total Information Awareness (TIA) was a project launched by the US government’s DARPA in the dark days following the 9/11 attacks. The concept was to allow the military access to a digital dossier on every US resident: Everyone’s digital tracks would be shadowed down to the mouse click in order to provide the Department of Homeland Security information on potential terrorist activity. Seamless Sharing can be seen as the mercantile version of TIA but instead of keeping our country safe from terrorism, it keeps Facebook awash in billions of advertiser dollars by acting as our social stalker. Facebook’s IPO relies on how well Zuckerberg & Co. are able to dominate the business of personal data, and the implications are nothing less than staggering.