Home McAfee Digs For Gold In Facebook’s Privacy Mess

McAfee Digs For Gold In Facebook’s Privacy Mess

No one cries for Mark Zuckerberg, but Facebook is in an increasingly tough spot. To generate ad money, it must track all member communications, but to keep members, it can’t share too much information. Now security vendor McAfee wants to help Zuckerberg make that spread, for its own bottom line.

Social Protection

McAfee this month plans to release a beta Facebook application called Social Protection that acts as a kind of photo vault, so people can control who sees which of their pictures.

McAfee says the post-beta app will monitor photos that other people post on the site. Customers will be alerted when those pictures contain a person who looks like them. People then could ask for the removal of shots showing them having too much fun Saturday night.

McAfee plans to offer the app for free until it figures out if there’s money in Facebook’s stumbling privacy efforts.

Facebook has sparked controversy with just about every change it has made to its privacy controls, starting with the introduction of News Feeds, back in 2006. This has created lots of suspicion among members, and McAfee wants to see if it can profit from that. 

McAfee, which is owned by Intel, claims its research shows that members want more privacy. “This is a concern for (Facebook members), and it’s something that they would like for somebody to solve,” Brian Foster, senior vice president of consumer product management for McAfee, said.

Is McAfee Betting On Paranoia?

With more than 900 million participants and a chaotic history of dealing with the issue, Facebook privacy seems like a potential gold mine, but is there a real need here? 

In June, Consumer Reports magazine referred to the site’s privacy controls as “labyrinthian.” In a recent opinion piece on CNN, David Frum, former economic speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said Facebook “takes the view that the information customers necessarily divulge in the course of using Facebook becomes Facebook’s property to use as Facebook sees fit – unless of course the customer affirmatively opts out by ticking the correct boxes in Facebook’s notoriously confusing and repeatedly changing privacy settings.”

Facebook Members Set Privacy Controls

Facebook offers the controls; it just hasn’t made them simple. By making the process a pain, Facebook has nurtured the market that McAfee sees and plans to test with the photo app.

But the facts show that members can and do wade through the site’s privacy marsh. Consumer Reports found that more than 90% of Americans on Facebook set their privacy controls, or at least know that they can set them. Even young adults, who are assumed to be the most careless when it comes to privacy, pay attention.

A 2010 study released by Eszter Hargittal, a professor at Northwestern University, and Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, found that more than half of young adults modified their settings four or more times in 2010. “Our data show that far from being nonchalant and unconcerned about privacy matters, the majority of young adult users of Facebook are engaged with managing their privacy settings on the site at least to some extent,” the study stated.

Indeed, as awareness of privacy management grows, some on Facebook are taking actions that can’t be meddled with by the site’s managers. The number of people who untagged photos of themselves, deleted comments about themselves and unfriended people rose significantly between 2009 and 2011, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Of course, that kind of reaction can make a social network less valuable.

“As people become more private in their public profiles and people are more privacy-conscious, it’s going to be harder for people to discover each other,” Keith Ross, a computer science professor at Polytechnic Institute of New York University told the Huffington Post. Ross conducted a study in New York that found a similar trend.  

What Facebook Should Do

If McAfee’s beta app is successful, people will see lots of blurred photos on Facebook. That’s because Social Protection distorts pictures for anyone without permission to view them. 

Using Social Protection may be too much trouble for most people, though. “I just don’t see mass adoption from the Joe Six Pack Facebook user,” said Rick Holland, analyst for Forrester Research

The ideal situation would be for Facebook to convince people that there are reasonable privacy safeguards already in place, David Jacobs, consumer protection fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said. That would be much better than having people “devote themselves to the full-time investigation and evaluation of companies’ data practices and the privacy tools available to protect themselves.” 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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