Facebook Timeline Stirs New Round of Worries

By | Sep 27, 2012

The timeline feature at Facebook has had privacy advocates up in arms since it was first introduced. And now Facebook timeline is triggering a new wave of concern. A French newspaper reported that Facebook users were seeing old personal messages pop up on their timelines.

Facebook and privacy controversies have been going hand in hand for years, long before the launch of timeline. And it must be said that the controversies have never caused many users to actually quit the site. But as Facebook faces growing pressure to generate revenue, it will be even more tempted to prioritize data-mining possibilities over user privacy.

For IT departments at midsize firms, the concern is about business analytics that may rely on Facebook data. New data privacy rules, or evolving user attitudes toward Facebook, could potentially shut off this data flow--leaving IT holding an empty sack.

Ghosts of the Past

As Donna Tam reports at CNET, the latest wave of Facebook privacy worries was triggered by a French newspaper. According to the paper, users have begun seeing old private messages show up on their Facebook timeline pages.

(The paper is unnamed in Tam's text, though a link there shows it to be Metro. From its website it resembles more a Salon-style magazine focused on pop culture, including tech, rather than conventional daily paper.)

A Facebook spokesperson offered a classically bland response: "A small number of users raised concerns after what they mistakenly believed to be private messages appeared on their timeline," said the spokesperson, who then asserted that the messages had, in fact, always been public.

This claim may well be literally correct. Facebook privacy controversies have often centered on privacy settings that were hard to understand and defaulted to less privacy than users might have imagined. And timeline, which is still rolling out, makes users' old messages easier to find.

Panopticon

Facebook's history of scanting privacy is not just about commercial considerations. For Mark Zuckerberg, universal oversharing seems to be a matter of strongly held principle. But post-IPO market pressures will surely not push Facebook the other way. Users' personal lives--their tastes, purchases, and friend networks--are what the firm has to sell.

It is not yet clear, in fact, how valuable this information really is. But in the meanwhile, many midsize firms are interested in mining this data. And while the goal is targeted marketing, the process involves big data and business analytics--and, therefore, deeply involves IT.

Which means that IT managers at these firms will be asked to look into the viability of using Facebook for data mining. The issues are technical, ethical, and legal, and the environment is fast-moving. IT may want to think more than once about becoming dependent on data streams that might abruptly dry up or be blocked by legislation.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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