Facebook Privacy Insights: How Policy Changes Your Public Data

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University followed more than 5,000 students over seven years to see what they shared, and with whom. This week the released their findings.

The study mostly determined that these students have started sharing more information, but with fewer people, since the opening of the website. But a series of sharp turns in usage and the effects of fundamental policy changes that took place during the study and are open to interpretation have led to a wide variety of opinions on what it all means.

A Facebook spokesperson's email response was understandably optimistic.

"Independent research has verified that the vast majority of the people on Facebook are engaging with and using our straightforward and powerful privacy tools — allowing them to control what they're sharing, and with whom they're sharing," the email said.

The email refers to a few large shifts in Facebook's sharing policies and design over the years.

In 2009, Facebook carried out a massive overhaul of privacy policy, which debuted a complicated but quite customizable system, with many ways to arrange who has access to what.

According to the study, this change followed several years of consolidation and limiting that Facebook users had carried out. The apparent confusion in the labyrinth of settings caused many users to share more than they had previously.

In 2011, the Timeline interface debuted, which also prompted users to fill out more information about themselves, including particularly significant events one would expect in a lifelong timeline, like births, weddings or graduations.

"People are trying to reveal less publicly ... but in fact are disclosing more to these silent listeners," report author Alessandro Acquisti told NBC News.

Those "silent listeners" that Acquisti mentions are the sponsors and advertisers who pay for access to the cumulative information gathered from Facebook users.

He explains that these advertisers don't get specific information, they just get to send a message to people who have indicated they might be interested already in what the advertiser offers.

“The fact that advertisers don't get direct access to the data is some protection, but it does not change the reality that advertisers can indirectly get at you through the data you are revealing about yourself on Facebook,” Acquisti said. “Is your privacy violated only when someone gets your name and birthdate, or if they know you are pregnant and try to send you advertisements that use this information?”

What do you think, readers?

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