“Jennifer Cathy” Raises Facebook Concerns

David Beal

Approximately 90% of Miramonte students use the online social network Facebook.  If you are one of them, last year you may have received a friend request from a “Jennifer Cathy.”

Those who viewed Cathy’s Facebook profile page or accepted her as a friend saw an attractive blonde teenager who claimed she attended Miramonte.  No students, however, had seen her before, and no record of her existed in the school directory.

Rumors started circulating around campus concerning Cathy’s identity.  Many students suspected that a school administrator created a false Facebook account to incriminate those who had uploaded illicit photos of themselves.  Others speculated that a Miramonte parent intended to turn these photos in to administrators, and some thought that a student had simply pulled an online prank.

As word spread, some Miramonte Facebook users “un-friended” Cathy.  Before long, her account disappeared.  
I don’t know who brought Jennifer Cathy into digital existence, and I don’t know this person’s motives.  The incident, however, raises pertinent questions about Facebook and its role in online openness and exposure.

Facebook launched in February 2004 as the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg, a bright Harvard undergraduate who wanted to create an online student directory for the university.  “Thefacebook,” as he originally called the site, took the clean, elite feeling of an Ivy League school and put it online.

As Facebook branched out to other schools and eventually to the public, its default privacy settings only allowed a user’s friends and his or her “networks” (everyone who attended Miramonte or lived in the East Bay, for instance) to access information like the user’s name, gender, and profile picture.

Since then, Facebook has been steadily expanding the number of people who can view the rest of users’ profiles.  As of April 2010, Facebook’s default privacy settings allowed the entire internet to access every part of a user’s profile except his or her contact information and birthday.

In short, Facebook has made Jennifer Cathy irrelevant.  If the Miramonte administration wanted to see students’ photos, Facebook makes their job simple; every photo on Facebook has a distinct “url,” or web address, available to anyone with an internet connection.

Tinkering with your account’s photo settings, therefore, probably won’t solve the perceived problem of spying grown-ups.  If it did, though, this would only be the tip of the iceberg.

Although Facebook responded to public uproar by making some changes to its privacy settings in May, these changes emphasize profile visibility and user-friendliness without clearly or adequately addressing fundamental concerns about the availability of users’ personal data.

Chiefly, Facebook has made that data available to marketers and business partners.  These third parties can then target you for their advertising.

Complete privacy on Facebook remains an elusive, unattainable goal for the site’s 500 million users, because Facebook has rendered its privacy settings irrelevant.  These settings can’t control the dispersion of profile information that Facebook deems “public information,” including name, profile picture, current city, gender, networks, friend list, and the recently instituted list of “connections.”

When a user pushes the “like” button on Facebook or on a different site, or when they “check in” somewhere with Facebook’s recently instituted “Places” application, he or she makes a “connection” that links to his or her profile.  These connections, publicly available, provide the basis for targeted marketing.  The more connections a user makes, the more data Facebook can give out;  because I “liked” Bob Dylan, an ad pops up for me about an upcoming Bob Dylan biography.

Marketers also have access to a user’s friends’ information and connections, and they use this information to give the user personalized recommendations that reinforce their products and build trust.  This also distinguishes Facebook’s system of targeted advertising from Google’s system.  Google, who pioneered this kind of advertising, only has access to a single user’s search entries.  Facebook, however, has access to an entire network that is quickly becoming the largest “hub” of the web.

All of Facebook’s privacy changes, therefore, trace back to profit.  Facebook creates gossip highways where we find out about sex, death, and funny cats (novelist Jonathan Franzen recently described our digital era as “a great time for the exhibitionists”), then charges marketers more for the targeted advertising we see there.  This reaps greater profits for the marketers themselves, while the user’s information and identity becomes a commodity.

Zuckerberg, Facebook’s C.E.O., implies that the network is a utopia, leading the way to a more “open” internet and an improved, peaceful global society.

Facebook’s New World Order aside, the changes have no ostensible benefits for users.  The idea of “links” to other websites makes the internet open and interconnected already; Facebook doesn’t need to augment that with marketing-based “connections.”  Also, some targeted ads have garnered a reputation for being strange and off-putting (some read “Make a love child” or “Credit score cancer?”).

In some respects, users should expect these developments.  When people create Facebook accounts, they inherently lose possession and control of their information as it flies through cyberspace.

If we used these criteria, however, we couldn’t send e-mails, go on instant messaging networks, or use any other established online communication systems.  A loss of privacy is in the nature of the online beast.

This, however, doesn’t justify Facebook’s policies.  Although Zuckerberg candy-coats the issue by saying “we are building a web where the default is social,” Elliot Schrage, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook, puts it more directly: “If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.”

In other words, Facebook automatically assumes that the user wants to fully participate in everything Facebook offers.  Facebook spreads users’ information without asking, and even when users have deleted their accounts, Facebook retains this information.

What can Miramonte students do?  At first, I thought the problem would be solved if I deleted my Facebook account, but this clearly isn’t the case.  Deletion would make little difference, and Facebook has become such an integral part of many students’ social and educational lives (myself included) that this solution would be impractical.

We can, however, spend the time to make our profiles visible to “Friends Only.”  Even if these privacy changes ultimately mean little, they are a step towards online security.

We can refrain from sharing photos, statuses, links, connections, and wall posts that we wouldn’t want the entire world to see (a glitch last Spring even let users view their friends’ supposedly private chat messages for a few hours).  We shouldn’t buy into marketing tricks like “Instant Personalization,” “Open Graph,” “Facebook Connect,” or “Places.”

The most we can do, though, is stay informed on Facebook’s changes and understand that Facebook is primarily an advertising tool; we advertise ourselves, and we consume the data that Facebook’s advertisers give back to us.

Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren said in 1890 that with the advent of cameras and tabloids, “numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’”  With the advent of Facebook, what is whispered in the closets is packaged, sold, and churned back to you before you can even blink.

News outlets, magazines, and websites are hotly debating the issue as it develops, so information is easy to find.  Check below (online) for articles and graphics about Facebook and privacy.