A new website provides a voyeuristic look into the once-private social network by making Facebook status updates searchable.Think your Facebook profile is private? You had better double-check.
"My boss is a jerk and always tells me what I'm doing wrong!", posts one user who we'll be kind enough to not name (although her full name is available on the site). "Shhh! Don't tell anyone, but I'm totally wearing my new corset to work today," another woman over-shares. "I totally cheated on the test!" brags a third.
Do these people know their status updates are now available to the whole Web? Or do they just not care?
We discovered these updates and (many more even worse ones) on a new search engine available at YourOpenbook.org. The engine parses the data Facebook users have made public and allows it to be searchable outside the social network.
Facebook Changes Make Public Statuses Easily Searchable
Ever since Facebook rolled out its new "recommended settings" starting late last year, thousands of unwitting Facebook users have been duped into accepting changes that set everything from status updates to photo albums to "public," meaning viewable by anyone and everyone who cares to look.
This change was just the first of a number of updates to the social network that have led to serious PR issues for the company. Other new features - including "instant personalization" of websites based on your Facebook profile information, the publicizing of likes and interests and finally, the indefinite personal data storage now permitted by Facebook applications - round out the privacy worries that have attracted interest from both E.U. regulators and U.S. senators.
But according to some Facebook execs, users aren't worried. A recent interview between Facebook's developer network director, Ethan Beard, and ComputerWorld, for example, has Beard proclaiming that the recent hubbub over Facebook's privacy issues doesn't reflect the true concerns of the site's 400-plus million users. "To be honest," he said, referring to the changes, "the user response has been overwhelmingly positive."
Users: Not Worried or Uninformed?
Another Q&A, this one between Facebook's VP for public policy, Elliot Schrage, and NYT readers, seems to counter the claim about users' general happiness. Instead, Schrage publicly acknowledges the rift between Facebook's goals and the current perception of the social network.
"Nobody at Facebook wants to make our users' lives more difficult," he laments. "It's clear that despite our efforts, we are not doing a good enough job communicating the changes that we're making... My biggest concern reading these comments has been the incorrect perception that we don't care about user privacy or that we'll sacrifice user privacy in exchange for advertising. That's just not true."
Even among tech industry insiders, some are now claiming the media has gone too far in decrying Facebook's supposed privacy violations. Articles, like the one you're reading now, are adding fuel to a fire that Facebook users seemingly don't even care about. But do they not care? Or do they just not know?
We would argue it's the latter. Case in point is an article we wrote in January about Facebook privacy, prior to the most recent radical changes, that still sits at number three on the New York Times' most-emailed list for tech articles. And the number two article there now is also about Facebook privacy. An unconcerned audience? It doesn't appear so.
Does Facebook Care?
To us, it's clear that users do care about their privacy. But does Facebook? It's hard to look at a site like OpenBook and think that it does, especially considering that it was Facebook's changes made sites like this possible.
We find it hard to believe that the thousands of users whose status updates are now publicly, embarrassingly on display for the world to see have knowingly opted into to this level of sharing. Perhaps there are a few exhibitionists out there (corset-wearing lady?) who are reveling in the chance to be this public, but most of these users are probably just uninformed about what going on. They assume that Facebook is still private, like it once was, and have continued treating it the same.
The results are shocking.
You Said What?
Openbook even helpfully suggests searches for you to try, some of which we can't even print here. Some safer-for-work examples, though, include: "drunk," "drugs," "called in sick," "my DUI," "DNA test" and "hate my boss," to name a few. Search for those terms and you'll find dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of status updates from Facebook users.
You could argue that it's the Openbook developers who should be held accountable for the embarrassments that are sure to stem from this site, but that may be misplacing the blame. Like those behind the now-shuttered PleaseRobMe.com, a site that aimed to inform users about the dangers of location-sharing, the builders of Openbook - Will Moffat, Peter Burns and James Home - aren't trying to embarrass, but educate.
"Openbook draws attention to the information Facebook makes public about its users via its search API," reads the site's About page. "Our goal is to get Facebook to restore the privacy of this information, so that this website and others like it no longer work."
We hope they accomplish their goals soon. In the meantime, you may want to check out this new tool, which helps you better determine how much you're sharing.