Facebook’s Instant Personalization Questions and Answers

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(With apologies to F-Secure’s Mikko Hypponen—the @scobleizer of security—I ’m going to attempt to imitate his Questions and Answers format.)

Facebook’s Instant Personalization continues to concern people who worry about privacy on social networks. Here are the questions about it that I wish I’d been asked about it.

Q: What is Instant Personalization?
A: It’s Facebook’s pleasant way of saying that it automatically shares your account information with partner sites according to the privacy settings you’ve chosen.

Q: What’s “instant” about it?
A: Unless you’ve opted out, your data is now being shared. (This is true in many countries. Facebook hasn’t turned Instant Personalization on in Slovakia or Finland, for instance.)

Q: With whom exactly is Facebook sharing my data?
A: The original three were Pandora, Yelp and Microsoft Docs. In fall of 2010, Facebook added Rotten Tomatoes and Scribd. Then in winter of 2010, Clicker and TripAdvisor went live. More partners are coming.

Q: Why?
A: Facebook is a business. We don’t know the financial arrangements behind these partnerships but they are all a part of Facebook’s broader strategy to spread its functionality or ‘like’ buttons anywhere on the Internet it can.

Q: Can they do this?
A: Yep. It’s in the site’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities AKA its terms and conditions. Grab a magnifying glass and a quadruple mocha, you’ll find it in there.

Q: Is this bad? Why am I shivering?!
A: Wired.com’s Threat Level blog called the recent implementation of Instant Personalization with Scribd a “privacy nightmare” because, among other reasons, it was difficult to opt out at first. Scribd has improved its opt out. But it’s still annoying.

Q: Why is it annoying?
A: Several reasons. 1. Facebook can partner with any site it chooses. Unless you opt of the function entirely, your information is automatically shared. 2. You may be friends with people—your boss, your mom, your employees—with whom you don’t want to share your movie or music tastes. Unless you’re paying close attention, you may be just doing just that. 3. The principle of it. Facebook says that its users can control their own information. This doesn’t meet that standard. 4. It’s too difficult to opt out. You have to drill down into the privacy settings to opt out of the feature entirely. Not being able to opt out of individual sites via Facebook’s privacy settings is especially annoying.

Q: How can I opt out?
A: I thought you’d never ask. To opt out completely: Go to “Account” > “Privacy Settings”. Under “Applications and Websites” click “Edit your settings”.  Find “Instant Personalization” and click “Edit Settings”.  Uncheck the box that says “Enable instant personalization on partner websites.” Once you do this, your information will not be shared with any partner site. You can also keep the feature on and block individual partners.

To opt out sharing with Microsoft Docs: Go to the Docs Facebook application page and click “Block Application”. Then click “Block Docs” on the pop-up.

To opt out of sharing with Pandora: Go to the Pandora Facebook application page and click “Block Application”. Then click “Block Pandora” on the pop-up.

To opt out of sharing with Yelp: Go to the Yelp Facebook application page and click “Block Application”. Then click “Block Yelp” on the pop-up.

To opt out of sharing with RottenTomatoes: Go to RottenTomatoes.com. Find the “Welcome” box with your Facebook profile picture in the upper left corner. Click “Learn More”. At the bottom of the pop-up just above the close button, click “disconnect”.

To opt out of sharing with Scribd: Go to Scribd.com. Find the “Welcome to Scribd – Where the world comes to read, discover, and share…” box on the top of the page. Click “No thanks” in the bottom right corner of that box.

To opt out of sharing with Clicker: Go to Clicker. Find the “Welcome to Clicker” box on the top right of the page. Click the “Disable” link.

To opt out of sharing with TripAdvisor: Go to TripAdvisor. Find the box at the top right of the page that says “TripAdvisor is using Facebook to show you friends’ trips and reviews.” Click “Disable” in that box.

Q: Is there any reason NOT to opt of Instant Personalization?
A: Sure. If you’re a responsible Facebook users who knows and trusts all your Facebook friends, connecting with them on various social sites could be fun and useful. But as Facebook adds more features like Places and shares your information with more sites, you’re taking a risk of sharing information you may not want to share. It’s not a driving while distracted by your cell phone risk. But it is a risk.

Note: The EFF monitors Facebook’s privacy policies closely and was a resource for this post.

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