Space & Innovation

5 Ways Facebook Owns You

Your business is Facebook's business.

If a stranger approached you asking for your name, age, phone number, names of family and friends, and interests, with the intent of sharing that information to more strangers, you'd probably be hesitant to readily give up that information. Yet that's essentially what users do when they create their Facebook profiles.

All of that information about you isn't owned by you. All of those personalized data points belong to Facebook, and there are ways all that sharing can come back to bite you.

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This week, Facebook drew widespread criticism after a photo of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, a victim of cyberbullying, showed up in a dating ad that appeared on the social networking site. Reportedly gang-raped when she was 15, Parsons fell into depression and later took her own life when photos of the incident were shared on social networking sites, leading to her being harassed by her peers.

For its part, Facebook insisted that the use of the photo is a "gross violation" of their ad policies and apologized.

How Parsons photo appeared in an ad in the first place remains a mystery. An earlier campaign, known as "Sponsored Stories," incorporated user data into advertisements, triggering a lawsuit in which Facebook paid approximately 614,000 users $15 each and rewrote its privacy policy, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

In this case, Facebook banned the advertisement and the advertiser. But would the inappropriate photo usage have even been noticed with a less high-profile subject?

Why Facebook Makes You Unhappy

Although Facebook's policy might not be to deploy ads with your profile photo or information site-wide, the social networking site does have a policy in place that allows it to use your information to advertise to your friends. Chances are, if you didn't read Facebook's "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities," you didn't see that. (Hint: It's somewhere in the middle.)

As Mashable's Kurt Wagner noted earlier this month, the agreement gives Facebook permission "to use your name, profile picture, content, and information in connection with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced" by the social networking sites. These ads would appear on the profiles of friends' pages, but not strangers. Users also receive no compensation for their participation.

Users who would prefer not to be conscripted as unpaid spokespeople can opt out if they so choose.

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Facebook's business isn't just connecting users across the world; it's selling the information on those users to advertisers so that they can find out who you are, build a profile and determine what they think you'd want to purchase.

As explained in a Wall Street Journal article, Facebook allows marketers "to target ads at users based on the email address and phone number they list on their profiles, or based on their surfing habits on other sites."

Facebook isn't the only one in the consumer data mining business. Google, Verizon, AT&T and other digital media and telecommunications companies also engage in this practice. And in many cases, there is no way for users to opt out, essentially making their personal histories a commodity.

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One of the technologies that Facebook is advancing is facial recognition software, something that has been developed over the last few years. Last month, Reuters reported on how Facebook was considering adding most of its nearly one billion user profile photos to its facial recognition database.

The idea behind the technology is that it will enable a kind of auto-tagging feature where a user that appears in a friend's photo would automatically be identified as such.

Although Facebook currently does not use any facial recognition technology on its users, that could, like other policies in the past, change, though users would be able to opt out. Privacy advocates are understandably worried about the implications of a massive global database of users being readily and automatically identifiable based on their profile photos.

As PCWorld's Sarah Jacobsson Purewal explains, facial recognition is more than just creepy. Strangers would be able to access information detailing everything about you with a single photo.

How Facebook Sells Your Personal Information

People on Facebook aren't only posting content about themselves on the social networking site; they're also sharing photos of their children. Like everything else on the Internet, these uploads can leave permanent digital prints of kids as they grow into adulthood.

Given the number of changes that Facebook has implemented over the years, not only in terms of its technology, but also its privacy policy, what does it mean to the youngest generation who never had the chance to opt out or even understand what social networking was when the first photos of their infant selves appeared online?

Slate's Amy Webb in an article posted earlier this month explained how she refuses to post anything about her daughter online in order to protect her from corporate data mining, profiling and more.

Much to the author's surprise, photos of her daughter had in fact been published online, as she notes in a follow-up, demonstrating the limited control a parent has over their child's digital footprint even at the youngest age.