Do Americans Care About Their Privacy on Facebook?

Facebook introduces privacy basics

Facebook announced recently that it plans on updating the terms and policies that govern users’ privacy and the social network’s use of the personal data that its users share with it. But as more than a billion users hand over increasingly large swathes of personal information and online activity in order to use the social network that all of their friends are on, how concerned are Facebook’s users about their privacy?

The social network began its latest privacy announcement with the introduction of Privacy Basics, a new service to make Facebook’s privacy policy easier to understand for the average user — who more often than not won’t read the dense legalese of the actual document, and many times won’t understand how to configure Facebook’s complex array of privacy settings.

post to Facebook’s Newsroom explains that Privacy Basics “gives you tips and a how-to guide for taking charge of your experience on Facebook.” Privacy Basics lets users explore their privacy on Facebook through three main categories: “what others see about you,” “how others interact with you,” and “what you see.” The site explains settings and options with colorful, interactive animations, clearly meant to make the information more accessible to Facebook’s broad user base.

Simultaneously, Facebook is proposing changes to its terms (formally called the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities), its Data Policy, and its policies on Cookies, Pixels, and Similar Technologies. The company also reports that it is “making ads better and giving you more control,” reiterating in a Help post how users can opt out of ad targeting, or how they can use the newly introduced Ad Preferences tool to tell Facebook how to show them more relevant ads.

The social network will be accepting comments, questions, and suggestions on its policy updates for seven days, before the changes are finalized. Once the changes are finalized and published, the new policies will go into effect in 30 days. Hayley Tsukayama points out in the Washington Post that while some things — like the social network’s definition of “public information” — have changed, crucial policies like the ways that the company is permitted to use data for research remain unchanged.

Privacy Basics provides interactive guides meant to “answer the most commonly asked questions about how you can control your information on Facebook.” In the “what others see about you” section, users can explore who can see their posts, how they can delete posts, what other people see when the user comes up in a search, who can see their likes and comments on other people’s pages, and who can see photos when someone else is tagged in them through simple animations that step users through the privacy controls that they can access through Facebook’s site.

In the “how others interact with you” section, users can learn how to manage what other people post to their Timeline, who can like and comment on their posts, how to untag photos, or how to unfriend or block another user. The section also explains what users should do if they think that their account has been hacked. Finally, in the “what you see” section, users learn how to change the ads that they see or the stories that show up in their News Feed.

However, the explanation oversimplifies the complexities of the News Feed and the algorithm that determines which of all the possible posts it could display it should prioritize each time a user logs in to the social network. And the page makes it painfully obvious that users ultimately have little control over how their information is used for advertising, both on and off of Facebook. The animations encourage users to take advantage of the Ad Preferences tool, which lets users tell Facebook which topics they’re interested in to receive more relevant ads.

The Privacy Basics information is available in 36 languages, and in the Newsroom post, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, explains that “Privacy Basics is the latest step we’ve taken to help you make sure you’re sharing with exactly who you want, including our privacy checkup, reminder for people posting publicly and simplified audience selectors.” Egan notes that the updates “reflect the new products we’ve been working on to improve your Facebook experience” and also “more clearly explain how our services work.”

Among the features that the post mentions are ways to “make purchases more convenient” with the Buy button that’s currently being tested in some regions, and “ways to show you the most relevant information based on where you are and what your friends are up to.” Egan explains that “in the future, if you decide to share where you are, you might see menus from restaurants nearby or updates from friends in the area,” and it’s not hard to imagine how Facebook could use the feature to deliver location-specific ads.

While Facebook’s updates to its terms and privacy policies affect a huge number of users, Re/Code’s Peter Kafka notes that it’s likely that many users don’t care about the policies or the tools that Facebook has added to help users understand them. Kafka points out that many users have accepted that Facebook and other social networks like it turn their users’ attention and personal information into advertising revenue, and those who felt strongly enough opposed to the idea quit the social network.

To Kafka, the company’s ambition “to sell you stuff and to serve you ads based on your location” is obvious given both Egan’s explanation in the Newsroom post and a passage from the proposed updates to Facebook’s Data Use policy, in a section that bears the heading, “Information about payments.”

“If you use our Services for purchases or financial transactions (like when you buy something on Facebook, make a purchase in a game, or make a donation), we collect information about the purchase or transaction. This includes your payment information, such as your credit or debit card number and other card information, and other account and authentication information, as well as billing, shipping and contact details.”

Kafka notes that neither the idea of financial transactions nor the concept of location-based content is new for Facebook, but the fact that the company is publicly addressing them, and adding provisions for them in its legal terms and policies, seems significant, possibly illustrative of their importance to Mark Zuckerberg and his company.

For Vindu Goel at the New York Times, the unstated business motive behind the privacy updates is to sell more advertising based on the personal data of Facebook’s 1.35 billion users, collected based on their activities not only on Facebook, but also elsewhere on the web and in other mobile apps, as users become either more apathetic, or more likely to turn a blind eye, toward the content of the terms and policies that govern the use of their data.

A recent study by the Pew Research Internet Project on “Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era” found that most Americans say that they are deeply concerned about their privacy. They don’t trust the government or private companies with their data, and are not confident in the security of communication channels like cell phones or social networks. But they continue to use these services and hand over their personal information, prompting Claire Cain Miller to write for the New York Times that “Americans say they want privacy, but act as if they don’t.

According to Pew’s research, a full 91% of consumers agree or strongly agree that “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies” — a clear illustration that many consumers have at least some level of awareness about how their data is used by businesses like social networking services.

Meanwhile, 80% of those who use social networking sites admit concerns about third parties like advertisers accessing the data that they share with these sites. 70% of social networking users say that they’re at least somewhat concerned about the government accessing some of their information without their knowledge.

While consumers are skeptical about the benefits of sharing their personal data in a commercial context, they’re willing to “make tradeoffs in certain circumstances when their sharing of information provides access to free services.” For example, while 61% of adults disagree with a statement that online services are more efficient because of their increased access to personal data, 55% agree with a statement that they’d be willing to share some information about themselves to use online services for free.

Pew also notes that Americans have very little confidence in the security of the communication channels that they use everyday, and there is not a single mode that the majority of Americans feels is “very secure” for sharing private information with a trusted person or organization. Eight-one percent  feel “not very” or “not at all” secure using social media sites to share private information, and 68% feel insecure using chat or instant messages to share private information.

Fifty-eight percent feel insecure sending private info via text messages, while 57% feel insecure sending private information via email, and 46% feel “not very” or “not at all” secure using a call on a cell phone to share private information. The mode of communication that Americans had the most confidence in was a landline phone, where 31% felt “not very” or “not at all” secure when sharing private information. Critically, most respondents said that they want to do more to protect their privacy, but few think that anonymity online is easy to achieve.

While distrust of digital communication modes is escalating, Americans seem to accept the risks as a necessary evil — the toll that they pay to access the tools and platforms of the digital age. For many, the niche tools with better privacy and security features than the Facebooks and Gmails of the world aren’t an option they’re willing to consider.

Miller, reporting for the New York Times, spoke to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who explained, “The reason is often they don’t have real choice. It’s not like picking up the newspaper and realizing ice cream has too many calories and you can start eating frozen yogurt, information that people can act on.”

People become invested in a service — amassing years of messages on Gmail or all of their social interactions on Facebook, for example — and are loath to give up those services despite their distrust of how companies are using the information that they share on these platforms. Rotenberg noted, “It’s this modern economy that doesn’t really rely on price, but on connections and stickiness. The companies have done everything they can to make it impossible to go somewhere else.”

According to Pew’s survey, social security numbers, health information, phone conversations, and email conversations were considered the most sensitive categories of data by respondents. At the same time, basic purchasing habits, media tastes, political views, and the identities of their friends were considered the least sensitive categories of data. It seems that consumers might tolerate the necessity of sharing data with Facebook because none of the data that they consider the most sensitive is information that they’d typically share over the social network.

What’s becoming increasingly clear is that Americans consider their now not-so-private data the price of admission to many of the services, platforms, and communication channels of the digital age, Facebook included. But it remains to be seen how far companies like Facebook can go with users’ data and the legal provisions that govern their privacy.

Will the data-sharing hit a point at which large numbers of users will decide that it’s gone too far? As long as popular social networking and communication tools remain ubiquitous, addictive, and hard to replace, such a day seems a long way off. It seems that even as users — especially younger ones, according to Pew — grow more concerned with their privacy online, they’re paradoxically finding it difficult to opt out of the platforms that they and their friends have used for years.

Though Facebook’s new Privacy Basics site proudly declares to the user that “you’re in charge,” even that website is aimed at getting users — including those who know full well the extent to which they’re giving up their data and their privacy — to still feel comfortable handing over control to the most popular social network in the world.

More from Tech Cheat Sheet:

Want more great content like this? Sign up here to receive the best of Cheat Sheet delivered daily. No spam; just tailored content straight to your inbox.