It’s been a tough couple of weeks for online privacy. Over on Facebook, the “Instant Personalization Program” meant that I was suddenly broadcasting their activities on a wide variety of websites, not just Facebook but on participant websites, like Pandora, Yelp, and Microsoft docs. And that was intentional; an unintentional glitch in the Facebook system meant that for several hours users were even broadcasting private chats and then some, and I was glad I don't use Facebook chat.
I went over to nix “Instant Personalization." You can do that. Sort of. But if any of my Facebook friends visit the participant websites without opting out, the sites will get my Facebook information anyway. To stop that I have to go to each individual partner site and block it at that point.
I didn't take the time to do that, because while I was figuring out how to get out of instant personalization, I noticed that my personal email that I had intentionally not published to my Facebook profile was now out in the open. Not only that, it couldn’t be tucked back out of sight; Facebook’s new policy is that email, profile pictures, networks, and pages are permanently public. After solving that problem by creating a new Gmail account that from now on will be my official email on Facebook, I realized that my activities and interests fields, which previously had been set to be only seen by friends, had been reset to be visible to everyone. I reset those back to "friends only", wondering how long that change will stick before Facebook “upgrades” it again.
So far, I haven’t been easily disturbed by the curtains pulled back by the Internet on my virtual home in cyberspace. Heck, I don’t have any curtains on my real home; I like to walk down the street at night and notice my neighbors sitting around the table, or in front of the TV, or, most likely, since I do live in Silicon Valley, in front of the computer; I don’t mind if my neighbors see me doing the same; I'll even wave if I see them looking.
But the folks looking at me on Facebook aren’t my neighbors. They are, as Facebook dials down my ability to control my privacy, more likely to be complete strangers. And I’m getting mad.
Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is tracking Facebook’s privacy changes closely, and providing clear instructions as to how to adjust your personal settings when that is possible. Will all this have any effect on Facebook’s privacy policies? I doubt it.
And just as I was trying to figure out just how much loss of privacy I am willing to tolerate to find out what my cousin is making for dinner tonight and to make sure I don’t miss my friends’ culling of the best articles, TV clips, or YouTube videos of the past 24 hours, the alarm bells started ringing over Spokeo and I had to go over to that site to see what all the fuss was about.
Spokeo touts itself as an online phone book. It works quite well for looking up numbers; it’s fast and accurate. But along with the phone number, Spokeo instantly pops up a little additional information—street name (but not house number), age, ethnicity, marital status, length of residence in the home, home value, occupation, interests (which it seems to collect from magazine subscription info). That’s for free. Before an initial outcry earlier this month, that free information also included a home photo and credit rating. For a monthly subscription fee (as low as $3), it’ll give you the complete address, email address, information on religion and politics, photos, videos, blog posts, and, it says (and I don’t doubt it), much more.
Now, it’s not that I didn’t know this information was living somewhere out there on the Internet. It didn’t bother me in bits and pieces. Remember AnyBirthday? This short-lived web site was one of the first to provide instant birth date information from just a name and a city. I loved it; there were people in my life that I should have been calling with birthday greetings but forgot their birthday information years ago but was too embarrassed to ask. There were people I know who I thought were fudging their ages and now I could tell for sure (not sure why I cared, but it was interesting). And I didn’t mind that people in return could find out how old I was.
How about when Google Street View first came out? There was privacy panic, and indeed a few folks recorded for posterity coming out of strip clubs in the middle of the working day were justifiably upset. But I liked the way my house looked, and made a game out of trying to figure out just what day and time the images were recorded, based on the state of the front yard, what cars were around the neighborhood, and the like. (Though the number of blogs that posted a copy of the Street View photo of Steve Jobs’ car in his home driveway was beyond ridiculous.)
And Zillow—never mind that the real estate data on that site is often vastly off target, it’s fun looking up the house I once owned, the one I currently owned, and others in the neighborhood to see what they’re worth, at least in the Zillow world.
But pulling lots of this information together used to take a lot of effort or a hefty fee, it wasn’t available to the idly curious. It’s a lot creepier when it’s free and easy.
Theoretically, you can opt out of Spokeo. I haven’t decided to do that yet, some of the information is weirdly inaccurate, like my astrological sign (how hard can that be?), and I’m wondering if maybe it’s better to know what’s out there about me on the Internet than to try to hide from it. But I did try to go to the page that supposedly allows the opt-out, and, at least that day, the page was unavailable. And Snopes.com reported that none of their attempts to block a name on Spokeo were successful.
Snopes also pointed out that, with all the information floating around the Internet, blocking one aggregator like Spokeo won’t insure your privacy. “Removing your personal information from display by Internet aggregators isn’t a one-time deal, but rather more like a never–ending game of Whack-a-Mole.”
Snopes nailed it. We all are playing Whack-a-Mole. On Facebook. On Spokeo. And on whatever pops up tomorrow. However, while Whack-a-Mole used to be one of my favorite arcade games, I’m not enjoying this online version. But I don’t see any way of opting out.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.