CMU researches Facebook privacy as site goes global

Rachita Chandra, Alexander Dileonardo Sep 17, 2006

College students may soon receive a surprising e-mail in their inboxes: “Your mom has added you as a friend on Facebook.”

Shortly after confronting a strong protest against its “News Feed” feature, the creators of the previously exclusive social networking site Facebook have announced plans to open the site’s doors to everyone in the Internet community.

Facebook has established a policy similar to those of other social networking sites, such as MySpace, and will soon allow users to join based on their affiliation with a country, state, or county.

However, unlike MySpace, Facebook will still restrict the viewing of other profiles; a student from Carnegie Mellon, for example, cannot view the profile of a student at the University of Pittsburgh unless the two are friends.

“College networks will remain exclusive to people from those colleges. High school and work networks will remain exclusive as well. Only your friends and other people in your networks can see your profile,” wrote Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, in a statement on the site last week. “This is what makes Facebook different, and we’re not changing it.”

Current members are not so convinced that opening Facebook to a broader audience won’t have a negative effect.
“Privacy is an important part of a person’s life,” said Abhishek Parikh, a first-year chemical engineering major, adding that he is worried that broadening Facebook membership may affect the privacy of its current members.

Recently, Carnegie Mellon researchers examined just that. Ralph Gross, a Ph.D. candidate in software engineering, and Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology and public policy at the Heinz School, produced a research paper titled “Awareness, Information Sharing, and Privacy of Facebook” that examined the way Facebook users perceive their privacy.

According to Gross, close to 50 percent of Facebook users surveyed gave the wrong answer when asked about who could view their Facebook profile.

The researchers also found that most students tried to protect their privacy by controlling the information they revealed to the online community, rather than adjusting the site’s privacy controls. When survey highlighted potential privacy concerns, only about 5 percent subsequently changed their online behavior.

“The current default options in Facebook’s privacy features are reasonable,” Gross said, adding that the current options serve as an “incentive” for non-Facebook users to join. “[There is] a direct trade-off between the success of Facebook and its privacy settings.”

Latanya Sweeney, a professor in the School of Computer Science, has established through an experiment of hospital discharge data that 87 percent of the U.S. population can be identified if their gender, five-digit ZIP code, and date of birth are available, according to Gross, who pointed out that these pieces of information are often visible on a Facebook profile.

“This risk would be further increased if sensitive profile information is made available to an even wider range of user as part of the global Facebook,” she said.

In addition to privacy issues, students are concerned with preserving the elite atmosphere that Facebook has created by previously limiting its membership to students and employees of large companies.

“Letting everyone on Facebook kind of ruins the novelty,” said junior computer science major Sateja Parulekar, “because then it’s just like MySpace or Friendster.”

Despite the seemingly overwhelming negative response that Facebook has received to the announcement of plans to open to a larger audience, some students support the idea.

“I think that it is a good idea that Facebook is now going global,” said Shelly Kucherer, a sophomore psychology major. “It will be nice to connect with more people from areas that I had not gotten in touch with.”

Current Carnegie Mellon students are not the only ones excited about the social network — some alumni are looking forward to logging on and creating a profile. Patrick Marinaccio, who graduated in 1979, is optimistic about the future of the newly global social network now that he is eligible to join.

“The value of Facebook to all users grows exponentially with its reach,” he said. “Imagine that the European and U.S. phone networks couldn’t call each other. Privacy and exclusivity would be enhanced, but usefulness drastically compromised.”