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Recently, Facebook announced proposed changes to its Data Use Policy, including added information sharing with advertisers and nixing user voting on potential future alterations to its privacy policies. As is to be expected, this proposal created a bit of an uproar from users who worry that the changes represent a significant erosion of their privacy.
It is debatable whether the proposed changes represent a big step away from user privacy considering Facebook’s preexisting policies. If the worries are well founded, however, it is because the very nature of Facebook (as well as other social networking sites and apps) already endager user data by giving us the rope with which to strangle our own expectation privacy. For instance, a recent study by Consumer Reports found that Facebook users increasingly post data that may be used against them by insurers, may make them targets for criminals, or may enable discrimination by employers.
While Facebook’s proposed changes may conflict with recently updated European laws designed to protect consumer information, the United States has no such protections. Moreover, the changes proposed are quite similar to policies Google enacted earlier this year. And since Facebook already mines data from its users for the purpose of targeted advertising, observers may only theorize as to the effect of the updated policies (some believe they are designed to bring Instagram users into Facebook’s data pool, while others fear the goal is to enable targeted advertising outside the Facebook environment).
The truth of the matter is that your information on Facebook, and the Internet at large, is only as safe as you make it. And there are no quick fixes. The effectiveness of those disclaimers some have posted has been debunked as a hoax, as illustrated by a recent post at Snopes, which takes a foray into contract law in criticizing one popular disclaimer. Rather, users need to educate themselves on methods for protecting personal data on Facebook and on the Internet generally.
Self-protection is not only crucial from a practical perspective, but failing to use it may have broad legal consequences for privacy in the modern era. As Judge Kozinski lamented earlier this year in an essay published in the Stanford Law Review, the constitutional protections of our private information are based only in a “legitimate expectation of privacy.” When we, as individuals and as a society, fail to protect our truly personal information (or, worse, voluntarily make it publicly available) we put at risk the herd immunity that we have against intrusions into our personal lives by private companies and the government. Maintaining this protection depends on taking protective steps that fall further and further away from online companies’ default settings, as indicated by Google and Facebook’s recent changes. Such efforts may prove too cumbersome for a society increasingly intent on blurring the line between public and private spheres online.
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