"Facebook is literally turning down the Facebook privacy settings for its users," says Electronic Privacy Information Center director Marc Rotenberg. In early May, EPIC and 14 other consumer groups filed a complaint against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission. The complaint accuses the site of following unfair and deceptive business practices, in part, for disclosing previously private details to the public.
Google Buzz (the search giant's social network) has also endured privacy issues. Buzz exposed a list of users' most frequently accessed e-mail contacts when it launched earlier this year.
Social networks have forced users to rethink what privacy is in a world where public sharing of private lives has become commonplace, observes Jeremy Mishkin, an attorney specializing in privacy law. "The real issue is how best to assure individuals they have control of their own information," Mishkin says.
Facebook declined interviews, but issued a statement: "It's important that Facebook and other sites provide [users] with clear control over what information they want to share, when they want to share it, and with whom. We're listening to feedback and evaluating the best way to respond to concerns."
Creating a digital profile on you gets a lot easier if you are on Facebook or Google Buzz and hanging a shingle on LinkedIn. That marketers use your interest in, say, Volkswagen cars to target-market you a new Jetta may be no surprise. But will your Facebook status ever be used by a credit agency, health care provider, or future employer to determine if you are a good bet?
Firms such as California-based Rapleaf say they are working with financial institutions to run their databases of e-mail addresses to assemble customer profiles based on information shared on social networks. Rapleaf's vice president of business development, Joel Jewitt, says it collaborates with company marketing departments, not credit-approval departments, to better target financial services to banking customers.
Rapleaf is merely one of many firms--ranging from Acxiom to Unbound Technology--that tap into social networks to marry your profiles, tweets, and LinkedIn information with your e-mail address. If a company wants to know more about you, it can just hire one of these outfits.
The firms bristle at the notion that your credit card interest rates could be jacked up based on a tweet that you just got laid off. But privacy experts say that this may be a reality in coming years (see related story: "Can Your Online Life Ruin Your Credit?").
To privacy activists, online advertisers have always been too smart for their own good. Now two emerging trends in advertising have privacy groups once more complaining that Madison Avenue has gone too far.