November 14, 2007

Facebook: Giving Personal Info for Profit?

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When Facebook announced last week that it would begin tailoring advertisements to users’ preferences, all sorts of reactions surfaced.
The Internet social networking site, which has over 50 million active users, decided to allow companies to create personalized ads for account holders with their friends’ profile pictures attached. The use of personal information within profiles as well as the use of one person to advertise to another person in what many have called “word-of-mouth to the extreme” has questioned the legitimacy and privacy of the website.
Prof. Ken Birman, computer science, a member of the Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology, believes that Facebook’s announcement is one step in an already slippery slope towards a society without privacy. He says that the dissemination of personal information for economic benefit has led to a sense of public nakedness without people knowing.
“I worry that we’re gradually creating the world of Minority Report,” Birman said, referring to the futuristic sci-fi movie in which passersby are tracked as they move about and are bombarded by personalized advertising projected on walls. “We’re witnessing a massive erosion of privacy, and society as a whole seems to be accepting this trend without even questioning it.”
TRUST, which coordinates 40 professors between Cornell, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Vanderbilt and others, is working to create secure computer databases for hospitals and stock exchanges. Cornell has also been investing in researching and teaching about privacy, including hiring Prof. Johannes Gehrke, computer science, a world expert on database security. The hope is that these solutions can be applied in other forums like Facebook by keeping personalized information out of the hands of people who can capitalize on it.
Prof. Vithala Rao, management, director of the institute for research and marketing, believes that this application of advertising is not out of the ordinary. He likened Facebook’s new money-making strategy to the ads that Google search engine displays in response to search keywords.
“All of these networking sites will eventually be used for advertisements,” Rao said. “It’s not surprising that they have all this information about individuals and they use it for something. … Most of the time, people don’t care when they sign onto these websites.”
However, Prof. Robert Kwortnik, hotel, said that it is not that people do not care about advertisements and the use of their personal information; it is that giving up privacy is an understood sacrifice for the ability to access content. But with Facebook’s increased emphasis on advertisements, Kwortnik questions what will happen to the website in the long run.
“The risk Facebook faces is will it go the way of broadcast television, where people zip through the commercials or use them to get up and get a beer. Maybe people will start to ignore the [advertising] messages,” he said.
Furthermore, Facebook could be in danger of losing its applicability to young people as a networking community if it becomes overrun with advertisements, according to Kwortnik. He said that the original appeal of Facebook was the somewhat exclusive quality of it only being available to college students.
Once the website began allowing anybody to create accounts, it became less of a community. Kwortnik said that when he told his class how his T.A.s had convinced him to start his own Facebook profile, “the entire room gasped.”
To let advertisers in could cause the website to lose more of the authenticity that attracted people to it in the first place. The question will be whether Facebook users will put up with these changes for the continued benefit of the content that the website provides, according to Kwortnik.
Prof. Lisa Pearo, hotel, agrees that changes in Facebook could change the ways people interact socially. When a product advertisement shows up on a user’s account as being recommended by a friend, people may start to question their friends’ decision-making abilities.
“This will cause people to evaluate how much recommendations from friends are worth,” Pearo said. “We will all need to apply the same filter that we have for TV for friends. … But a lot will depend on how advertisers use it.”
With the diminishing amount of privacy and the ability of advertisers’ to use people’s preferences for marketing, people will have to decide what they do and do not want to share, Pearo said.
Birman agreed that privacy will be an issue now more than ever for Facebook users, and believes education on privacy practices should be put into place. Having long been involved with issues of privacy, Birman has advocated that the Freshman Reading Project include reading about this topic in the form of an essay by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren entitled “The Right to Privacy.”
However, the main constituent of Facebook users remains students and younger people. And this demographic seems to be undecided on the changes as of yet. Unlike the resistance that users put up when Facebook installed its MiniFeed system, most have been relatively quiet on the issue.
“I think the new changes will make Facebook less appealing,” said Pete Nayyar ’09. “I’ve already disabled most of the new features on Facebook, and I’ll have to wait and see on this one, but I can’t imagine liking it.”
Ben Piper ’10, a self-proclaimed Facebook addict, disagreed.
“I think the changes will be fine as long as there is an option to turn it off,” he said. “When Facebook implements a new change that will affect the privacy of its users, though, I think they have an obligation to tell us, and so far they haven’t.”