Saturday, December 19, 2009

Facebook's Data About Us: Mind-boggling and Scary

Facebook becomes more diverse as Latinos, blacks join at rapid pace - San Jose Mercury News
Ultimately, the statistical analysis could be a way for Facebook to dig deeper into the vast web of friendships, civic attachments and other relationships of its members. Although there is controversy about the value and limitations of sociological data gleaned from online networks, some experts believe that such studies could provide rich sociological insights, filling in the broad gaps left by existing sources of demographic data like the U.S. Census.

The controversy for me isn't value and limitations (which I take to mean the limitations on the conclusions that can be drawn).  For me it's that the value is so high that the limitations may be irrelevant for some time, and that makes me extremely nervous.  Facebook knows an incredible amount about most of us, way more than we'd likely ever voluntarily give a government agency.  So why do we trust that this is OK?  Is it because we actually believe Facebook is a trustworthy organization, or is it because it is just to hard to think about and so we won't really do so until something happens that disturbs us? 
"I think it will be transformative," said Duncan Watts, a Yahoo research scientist...
Yeah! (Sounding like "doh!")  I do think that the research and insight could be incredible.  But how much are they doing it already?  Am I just paranoid?  The financial interests here have to be so huge that it's hard to imagine they are not already well down the road of figuring out ways to use this data that we may or may not be comfortable with. 
... The hoard of demographic data owned by Facebook — age, gender, education and now race and ethnicity of perhaps a third of the U.S. population, along with a list of their closest friends — is a huge potential bounty for advertisers.
Do we have a good check and a balance on an organization that is so pervasively informed about our private lives? 

I'm a hypocrite here.  I've given Google just as much data, but because I use Google much more than Facebook, I've been willing to ignore the larger privacy and security issues around Google services because the immediate benefit to me is so high.  Am I someday really going to regret that?