On Wednesday, users discovered a glitch that gave them access to supposedly private information in the accounts of their Facebook friends, like chat conversations.
Not long before, Facebook had introduced changes that essentially forced users to choose between making information about their interests available to anyone or removing it altogether.
Although Facebook quickly moved to close the security hole on Wednesday, the breach heightened a feeling among many users that it was becoming hard to trust the service to protect their personal information.
“Facebook has become more scary than fun,” said Jeffrey P. Ament, 35, a government contractor who lives in Rockville, Md.
Mr. Ament said he was so fed up with Facebook that he deleted his account this week after three years of using the service. “Every week there seems to be a new privacy update or change, and I just can’t keep up with it.”
Facebook said it did not think the security hole, which was open a few hours, would have a lasting impact on the company’s reputation.
“For a service that has grown as dramatically as we have grown, that now assists with more than 400 million people sharing billions of pieces of content with their friends and the institutions they care about, we think our track record for security and safety is unrivaled,” said Elliot Schrage, the company’s vice president for public policy. “Are we perfect? Of course not.” (Readers can submit questions for Mr. Schrage on Bits, The Times’ technology blog.)
Facebook is increasingly finding itself at the center of a tense discussion over privacy and how personal data is used by the Web sites that collect it, said James E. Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University.
“It’s clear that we keep discovering new boundaries of privacy that are possible to push and just as quickly breached,” Mr. Katz said.
Social networking experts and analysts wonder whether Facebook is pushing the envelope in a way that could damage its standing over time. The privacy mishap on Wednesday, first reported by the blog TechCrunch, did not help matters.
“While this breach appears to be relatively small, it’s inopportunely timed,” said Augie Ray, an analyst with Forrester Research. “It threatens to undermine what Facebook hopes to achieve with its network over the next few years, because users have to ask whether it is a platform worthy of their trust.”
Over the last few months, Facebook has introduced changes that encourage users to make their photos and other information accessible to anyone on the Internet. Last month its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, unveiled plans to begin sharing users’ information with some outside Web sites, and Facebook began prompting users to link information in their profile pages, like their hobbies and hometowns, in a way that makes that information public.
That last change prompted the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group, to file a complaint on Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission.
The extent of the discontent among users is hard to quantify, but one measure is a group created on Facebook to protest the recent changes, which has attracted more than 2.2 million members.
Mr. Schrage said that the company was aware that some users were not happy with the changes, but that the overall response had been positive.
Part of the reason Facebook’s recent changes are upsetting users is that, in contrast to a service like Twitter, most people signed up for Facebook with the understanding that their information would be available only to an approved circle of friends, said Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
“Facebook started out with a strong promise of privacy,” she said. “You had to be at a university or some network to sign up. That’s part of how it competed with other social networks, by being the anti-MySpace.”
As the company has changed its approach to privacy, it has introduced new ways for users to adjust their privacy settings. But these tools have grown increasingly convoluted, leaving many users frustrated and unsure of what information is available to whom. They say a site that they joined for the sake of friends and fun has started to feel too much like work.
“At this point, I have no idea how many times I’ve changed my settings,” said Lauren Snead, a 24-year-old student in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “I’ve done it so many times. I’m tired of logging in one day and seeing everything is different and trying to understand what it means.”
In addition, many users are not even aware of the privacy settings, Dr. Boyd said. A recent survey from Consumer Reports found that 23 percent of Facebook users either did not know the site offered privacy controls or chose not to use them.
Mr. Schrage said the company was working to clear up confusion about the settings.
Many frustrated users may not give up on the site because it has become a vital form of communication. Facebook continues to add users at a rapid clip, doubling in size in the last year.
“I’m not going to quit Facebook, because it’s so ingrained in the culture,” said Ryan Scannell, a 26-year-old food scientist in Chicago. “Facebook is not a private place, I don’t expect it to be. But at the same time, I’d like to control what’s accessible to strangers and what’s accessible to family and friends.”
There are financial motives behind the company’s moves. One of the ways Facebook makes money with its free service is by customizing the selection of advertisements shown to individual users. The more information publicly available about users, the more the company can make from such focused ads.
In addition, analysts say Facebook may be eyeing the lucrative market for online search, figuring that its users will be more likely to turn to their friends for advice and information than the wider Web. That opens up more opportunities for advertisers.
“They’re heating up in their battle against Google,” said Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at the Internet security firm F-Secure who analyzes social networks. “If I’m looking for a day care for my 6-year-old, I’m going to put that in my status message, not do a Google search.”
Mr. Schrage of Facebook said the controversy over the site’s changes was indicative of a larger shift online.
“Facebook has been made the center of attention around a really important issue of how technology is changing the conception of privacy, control and sharing,” he said. “People are uneasy about it, but as they start to see the benefits and advantages of it, they start to see the value of the experiences.”
Glitch Brings New Worries About Facebook’s Privacy
Posted on May 7, 2010
Posted in: Uncategorized