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If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product

"If you aren't paying for the product, you are the product."

It's unclear where that quote first originated but in the internet world, no truer words have been spoken. And that brings us to Facebook, where the users are the product. That's right, Facebook is a service, but the users are the product. More specifically, the user's personal data and habits are the product. You simply cannot expect Facebook to keep your data private because that would reduce their revenue, and Facebook is first and foremost a business. Everything else is secondary. As InfoWorld's Bill Snyder explains, Facebook will keep on violating your privacy, no matter what its policies say, what promises it makes, or how shocked it claims to be at the latest incident.

Facebook's track record is arguably one of the worst in the entire industry, and people are finally starting to "get" that it's not an accident. It's how they do business. But few people see the long-term implications, which we'll get to in a moment.

Every couple of weeks Facebook is caught violating users' privacy, and it happens so often that it's no longer a surprise to anyone. A "code error" here, "rogue" business partners there, loads of deliberately confusing and convoluted "privacy" settings…it all adds up to a deliberate campaign of harvesting your data while continually being baffled as to how such a thing could happen. The whole thing reminds us of that wonderful scene from Casablanca:

Captain Renault: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that Facebook is selling its user's data!"
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of CDs and thumbdrives]
Croupier: "Your data, sir."
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] "Oh, thank you very much."

(With our sincere apologies to Humphrey Bogart)

The problem (read: "business model") with Facebook is that it needs you to share lots of information in order for them to sell it to others. Therefore it's in their best interests (and bottom line) to make it difficult or impossible for you to keep your data private. Your data is what they want, and you can bet that they're going to get it.

Their job is to ensure that you have to opt-out, and preferably in a way which is convoluted enough to make you not bother but not so convoluted that they're accused of being evil. An exception to this is "Facebook Places", which they've quite clearly designed so that you cannot block check-ins from your friend stream without completely blocking the friend. This was obviously done in the hope that you'll be persuaded to actually use the service (that is, to not turn it off- you don't have to actually use the service for it to leak your information).

When friends encourage me to get on Facebook (about once a week) I explain to them about the "your private info = profit" model, and why they shouldn't contribute to it. Most of them have the same response: "So what?" It 's hard enough to explain to them why their personal information would even be profitable in the first place, but even the ones that understand don't care.

The sad fact is that Facebook users have the same view of privacy Mark Zuckerberg has: they don't value it and they don't understand why anyone else would. Here's an enlightening comment from Slashdot on the results of the profiling done by Facebook:

"When I log onto facebook and when my girlfriend log onto facebook, we'll see different advertisements. Why is that? Clearly they've collected enough information on me to know that I like video games and she likes Jewelry. Simple enough matter – perhaps thats just gender profiling? Well when I log on compared to my brother, I see ads for MMO's, he sees advertisements for sports and poker. Then, when someone messages you "Hey, whats your Phone #?" Facebook gets that info. When someone asks "Hey where's your house again?" They get your address. "Whats your email?" – yada yada yada."

Facebook's official stance is that it "doesn't share your personal information with advertisers", and that it only uses "anonymous" information to target ads. But the fact is that it's impossible for Facebook to both profit from your personal information and to guarantee it will never be shared without your permission.

So what about those long-term implications I alluded to above? What's that all about? Simply put, the thing that Facebook users don't seem to get is that this will undoubtedly go much farther than targeting you for advertising:

Hmmm, how interesting- you were looking up certain medical conditions, and you have a self-diagnosis app on facebook. Your health insurance company buys that information and matches it to you personally.

Guess what? A letter from your insurer… "We're terribly sorry (lol!), but your premiums are going to go up because we suspect you might have something."

And what if you do come down with something? Well, there are those searches you made five years ago that suggest it might have been present before you bought your insurance from them (a "pre-existing condition"), so "…we'll have to deny your claim". Go ahead and try to fight it. See where it gets you.

Or how about this: did you or a friend post pictures of a party where you were drinking? Your auto insurance company can now get that information, and chances are they'll decide you're a higher risk than they're comfortable with, "because you might drink and drive". Guess who's likely to get an insurance rate increase (or a canceled policy notice)? That's right, you are. As above, go right ahead and try to contest it. See where it gets you.

Oh, and while they're at it, the auto insurance company can sell that information to your health insurance company, because drinkers are statistically at a higher risk of developing some health problems than non-drinkers. And best of all, the auto insurance company will get paid by the health insurance company for every "risk lead" that they pass to them. You tell me- what's their motivation not to sell your information?

No, it's not fair, but that won't stop them from doing it.

Don't laugh. This is exactly the kind of use this information will be put to. When it happens, don't complain- you made it possible. Facebook couldn't have done it without you.

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