How Useful is Facebook Users’ Information?
A lot has been written on Facebook and its users loss of privacy. In fact, for some, Facebook and loss of privacy have become synonyms. A major fear involves the use of Facebook users’ personal information by information aggregators who will use the data to target the sale of products. I do not intend to contest here that Facebook users disclose a lot of personal information. But, I want to look at how accurate is the information that Facebook users reveal on Facebook.
When people surf the Internet their personal information, websites and searches are collected by cookies. As I have written, people tend to disregard these privacy threats at least partly due to their lack of visibility. Even those who know that their information can be collected by cookies, tend to forget it as they use the Internet on a daily basis. As a result the information collected by cookies reveals relatively true preferences. Cookies will reveal embarrassing or secret facts, such as visits to pornography sites or to medical sites to investigate a worrying medical condition.
But Facebook is different. Facebook users are constantly aware they are being viewed. True, they may not be thinking about the companies that may eventually aggregate the information. But, for sure they are thinking of the hundreds of friends who will be reading their status updates, examining their favorite books, favorite movies and linked websites. Facebook users “package” themselves. They present themselves to the world the way they want to be perceived. Their real preferences and tastes may be somewhat or even completely different from those they present on Facebook. A criminal law professor may have in her Facebook library collection legal theory books, while in fact in her spare time she is an avid purchaser and reader of chick lit books. A twenty year old college student may want to appear cool placing links to trendy music, although his real passion remains the collection of Star Wars figures.
Some information on Facebook, such as date of birth or marriage status is less likely to be mispresented by users and provides rich ground for data mining. But Facebook users “packaging” raises two issues. Companies seeking to target consumers with products they actually want to purchase may find Facebook information less useful than believed. And from a privacy perspective, it is not merely the disclosure of true personal information that we should be concerned about but the creation of false or misleading individual profiles by data mining companies that can eventually change the information and consumption options available to these Facebook users.