Last 24th of September, I logged in my Facebook account, as usual. A status quickly caught up my attention. One of my contacts was alerting us about a fail in Facebook security: our private messages dated from 2007 to 2009 were available on our wall, visible by everybody. I immediately checked my profile and understood that it was true. I could see private messages on my wall, as if they had been posted there by my contacts. While everybody could read the intimate conversations of their friends, people started to joke about the fact that this bug would lead to break-ups and divorces. This event brought back into my mind an old concern about the network: how does Facebook guarantee the privacy of people’s data? Am I aware enough of what Facebook know about me, and of the use of this information? Finally, what are the risks of using Facebook?
Facebook was created in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg. Reserved to Harvard’s students, the success of this social network was immediate. Today, Facebook is opened to every person who is at least 13 years old and who has an access to the Internet and an e-mail address. More than one billion people use it (data from October 1, 2012). Its popularity is due to the fact that it is considered as a way to increase socialization. Djahane Païenda, a 20-year-old French student at Sweet Briar College, in Virginia, explains why she loves it: “I use Facebook to be in contact with my family and friends all over the world. I love the fact that wherever I am, no matter how far I am from my relatives, I can always keep contact with them and see how they are doing in their lives and see them grow.” Sixtine Abrial, a 21-year-old student in Sweet Briar College, in Virginia, is not convinced: “I think it makes us believe that it leads us to a greater socialization because we have access to our friends’ information. We can see what they write, what they post, we can have an idea of where they were, and what they did at any time of the day, thus having a supposed better idea of the kind of life they lead. However, the time we spend on Facebook is time that we don’t spend socializing for real, as in face-to-face conversations. Socializing is, by definition, the action of talking to someone face-to-face, and not through a computer screen. En bref, Facebook leads to a limited socialization.”
Facebook recently scared its French users. Last September, after an update of its server, private messages dated from 2007 to 2009 were published on people’s walls. It rapidly spread terror among the Web users and French journalists made it headlines. Facebook France did not wait too long to refute this accusation. According to the team, people got confused because of a change in the interface, and that is all. The timeline and the private messages are hosted in separate servers, so they claimed that the mix of data between both would be impossible. The CNIL, the French commission which deals with computer science and controls the protection of data, took over the affair. The commission met the managers of Facebook France and concluded that there was no bug. They agreed with Facebook’s explanation of different interfaces. Alexia Bertrand, a 22-year-old student in computing, in France, does not understand: “This is crazy. I saw private messages on my wall. My friends saw private messages on their wall. One of my friends was telling me that she cheated on her boyfriend, and now, it is supposed to be something that she posted on my wall? This is ridiculous and I don’t understand how the CNIL agreed on this. For sure, I won’t use Facebook messages anymore.”
As if it was not enough, the website Youropenbook.org allows people to have access to pictures and status of other people. It works as a search engine, a person finds another by using his or her e-mail address. It does not scan only Facebook, but the results come mainly from this social network. From the results, the website builds a profile with the interests and even the family and the neighborhood. It is not always accurate, but it gives the opportunity to anybody to learn things about anybody. The more active you are on the social networks, the more precise your profile will be.
In order to make people more active on the website, Facebook regularly launches new applications. They are created to look fun and to increase the value of your experiment with the social network. Nevertheless, the use of some applications can be dangerous. For instance, Foursquare uses geolocalisation to add on someone’s profile the place from where he or she is connected. People use it when they are proud to be somewhere and that they want their contacts to know about it. Tom Marcais, expert in new technologies and Internet at Sweet Briar College, explains the risks: “Private information can be used for many different purposes. Sharing your birth date might be nice to get tons of posts on your wall wishing “Happy Birthday”… But it could also be used to help steal your identity or password information. Telling your friends you’re on vacation having a blast might seem like a good idea… until you return home and find out that organized crime has used your information to rob your house while you were gone. Ranting about your boss might be good stress relief, until a jealous co-worker forwards your post to them.”
More and more people consider that the social network is unreliable and that it would be silly to stay on it. Laura Albanesi, a 19-year-old student at Sweet Briar College, suppressed her account six months ago, without any regret: “Facebook stopped me from enjoying life and people around me. It is like a drug: once you get addicted to it, it is hard to stop using it.” When she says that she does not have a Facebook account, people are surprised: “Facebook has become such a huge part of their life… But not of mine.” Jocelyn Jones, another student at Sweet Briar College who is 26, does not consider herself as addicted to the social network: “I spend days without checking it sometimes and when I finally do, there are too many new notifications to care about.” According to a German news website, some employers and psychologists consider the people who do not have a Facebook account as suspect. Not being on the social network would be synonym of wanting to hide something or having been banned from it because of an incorrect behavior.
Despite this fact, anti-Facebook movements rise all around the world. In 2010, two Canadian people launched the “Quit Facebook Day”, planned on the 31st of May. On their website, 40,387 people committed to quit Facebook. According to news agency AFP, 33,000 people really did it. There will never be a possibility to know if they came back on the social network later, but companies have understood that the anti-Facebook movement could be the next trend in the United States. Im-not-on-facebook.com sells t-shirts decorated with the “I’m not on facebook.” sentence. The Twitter account of this website collected funny tweets of people who have closed their Facebook account. Moreover, people use their blogs to speak about their own experience without Facebook.
In addition to these actions made by citizens, some companies have decided to create their own social network, which are intended to be Facebook’s rivals. The main one is Google+, launched by Google in June 2011. In December 2012, it had a total of 235 million of active users. According to Alexandre Joussier, a French student in Multimedia and Strategy, who has an account on both of the websites: “I think Facebook is definitely the ultimate social network. Google lauched G+ too late, and even if the number of users is important, there are plenty of ‘phantom-accounts’, which are registered users who have posted only once or twice. Google+ is bringing nothing more to me than Facebook, so it’s useless.” Marcais is less categorical: “It is very hard to get people to switch social networks. It’s not impossible. Facebook came along and was able to successfully get people to switch to their platform from MySpace. But you really need to have a good reason to get people to switch. Right now, people are pretty satisfied with Facebook. They’re not likely to move… And social networks like Google Plus are only successful if your friends are there too. I predict that Google Plus will not be successful, and that Google will not try a 3rd attempt at creating a social network on their own. Instead, especially since Facebook is now publicly traded, they will likely just buy Facebook. Then, they will take all the successful things they’ve done with Google Plus – search integration, Google Apps integration, hangouts, etc. – and incorporate them into Facebook. In the end, you’ll have a better platform without making the users switch to another service.”
Google is not the only one which tries to compete with Facebook. In 2010, four students of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, in New York, started the Diaspora project on Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a platform when people promote a project and can receive funds by the web users. Diaspora is describing as a more secure-Facebook: it is a software with a delocalized server. Each person is responsible for the data which are public and the ones which are private, thanks to a system of “friendly key”. To have access to the private information of someone, this person has to give the key. All the data that require this key are encrypted. Their goal was to collect 10,000 dollars from the web users. Three months later, 6,479 people had donated a total of 200,000 dollars. The first version of Diaspora is supposed to be available at the end of December 2012.
However, Facebook is still the leader of the social network. In spite of the time that people spend on it and consider as wasted and the privacy’s issues, it is easy to become addicted to it. It is the case of Djahane Païenda: “I spend a lot of time on Facebook. I check it several times during the day, especially since I left France because it is an essential way for me to communicate with family and friends. As a matter of facts, I guess you could call me an addict.” Melanie Lower, a 22-year-old Spanish student at Sweet Briar College, does not think that she is too dependent on Facebook. Nevertheless, she admits that it is difficult to live without it: “I must recognize that before it wasn’t a problem to be without using the internet for a few days, something that is almost impossible now. I feel an urge to check out Facebook all the time. I love it!”
According to a 2010 research made by two students of the University of Georgia, Facebook allows people to fill two human societal needs: the need to belong and the need for self-presentation. If it is too hard to suppress an account, or if a person does not feel the need to do it, it is still fundamental to be able to redefine the parameters of an account. Marcais insists on the importance of being careful: “Always be careful what you post and share with others. Just because you’re only sharing it with a few people does not mean that they might not share your information with others. Before posting anything, ask yourself this question If I was to run for public office in 10 years, would I want my opponent to see this information? If the answer is no, then do not post it. Never post content in the heat of the moment, as you might regret it later on.” When it is publicly known that, six years ago, Mark Zuckerberg said that the users of Facebook were “dumb fucks” because they trusted him with their data, this advice will not fall on deaf ears.