Should you trust Facebook with your email?

By Michael Fertik
November 19, 2010

INTERNET-SOCIALMEDIA/PRIVACY- Michael Fertik is the CEO and Founder of ReputationDefender, the online privacy and reputation company. The views expressed are his own. -

Facebook already knows a massive amount about you.  They know your age, what you look like, what you like, what you do for fun, where you go, what you eat, whom you know, whom you know well, whom you sleep with, who your best friends and family are, and, again, how old they are, what they like, and so on.

On top of that, Facebook has a well-known history of privacy breaches or at least snafus.  Publicly they seem committed to the notion that privacy is dead.  Their CEO and Founder has said as much.

Never mind that this view is not shared by the public, which is hungry for privacy in the digital age.  And never mind that the “death of privacy” would serve exactly the interests of a digital media company.  It seems that it may be an honestly held belief among top leadership of Facebook that privacy is and should be dead.

Now, Facebook is expanding its reach even further.  It will be rolling out a unified, cross-platform messaging system that will combine features of email, SMS, and chat.  The company will offer users @facebook.com email addresses.  At first blush, there’s nothing altogether new about the development from a technical standpoint.  Unified messaging has been a goal since the advent of disunified messaging—more or less since SMS, IM, and chat became comparably popular and used in parallel.

But a Facebook-based unified messaging system may offer different appeal and new risks, and not just because it can instantaneously distribute its feature set to its 500 million-plus user base.

It is impossible for a digital media company to care deeply about privacy.  You are the only asset they have to sell.  The promise of advertising in the Internet age is that the platform can connect a brand with the individual person most likely to buy.  The only way that happens is through the collection and use of huge amounts of data about each of us, followed by the sale of access to the data or the person they describe.

There’s nothing wrong with advertising, and some digital media companies even want to care about privacy.  But there is an unavoidable tension between the commercial demands of digital advertising and the privacy interests of the people whom the media businesses must treat as their saleable assets.

Why would we want to give a single company that is both commercially and ideologically not able or keen to support privacy even more information than we already do?  Would we want to give that kind of business even more data than we give banks, search engines, telcos, browsers, or even the government?

The argument for sharing more information with companies like Facebook is that, by having more information about each of us, they can make our services more tailored to our particular needs.  By reading our private messages, our emails, our SMSs, our chats, our photos, our wall posts, our check-ins, our status updates, and the patterns of our “meta-behavior” (how often we log in, the geo-stamp of our login location, etc.), they might offer suggestions on where to get a burger or even a discount on that burger.  No doubt some of us will want the burger coupon.

But let me describe another scenario, just as plausible and much more financially rewarding than the burger discounts for the lead-generation companies that will surely seek to capitalize on it and similar projects.  Take a 35-year-old healthy woman who is friends on a social network with a 65-year-old woman who shares her last name and who is part of a breast cancer survivors group.  The same 35-year-old healthy woman receives an email about breast cancer from a friend.  If you’re an insurer (or possibly an employer or even maybe a date), you’ll pay top dollar to get access to those two data points, because together they make a line that points toward a higher likelihood of future cancer.  Today, those data points aren’t in the same database.  With a  fully merged and integrated unified messaging system, they will be.  Hopefully, Facebook won’t ever want to engage in this kind of commerce, but the risk grows with every extra piece of information a company has about you, and business incentives may at some stage be too much even for goodwill to oppose.

It doesn’t matter if we think well or ill of Facebook in particular.  It’s not a good idea to centralize all your most intimate details in one place—one easily replicated, mirrored, archived, and transmitted electronic place—if the house makes its money by selling data or access to what they’ve got on you.

Read Fertik’s guest blog posts at Harvard Business Review.

(Photo: A Facebook page is displayed on a computer screen in Brussels in this April 21, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Thierry Roge)

3 comments

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Um… not yet. This is a GREAT article, despite the dismay of breaches and data insecurities, in that it keeps one of my pet concerns front and center: Security. In David Scott’s words, everyone needs to be a mini-Security Officer today. I think that author is right: Most individuals and organizations enjoy Security largely as a matter of luck. For some free insight check out his blog, “The Business-Technology Weave” – you can Google to it. Anyone else here reading I.T. WARS? I had to read parts of this book as part of my employee orientation at a new job. The book talks about a whole new culture as being necessary – an eCulture – for a true understanding of security, being that most identity/data breaches are due to simple human errors. It has great chapters on security, as well as risk, content management, project management, acceptable use, various plans and policies, and so on. Google IT WARS – check out a couple links down and read the interview (full title is I.T. WARS: Managing the Business-Technology Weave in the New Millennium). “In the realm of risk, unmanaged possibilities become probabilities.” Keep “security” front and center! Great stuff.

Posted by janice33rpm | Report as abusive

[...] Being a reluctant Facebook user has never been easy, simply because no other platform has been able to bring as many of your friends and acquaintances together at one place as does Facebook. But I have always maintained that it might never be a great idea to have more than necessary details up out there, even at the cost of sounding dated. I found an excellent read today on this very topic , almost reiterating my concerns in an identical fashion – probably better! Just check this out Should you trust Facebook with your email? [...]

[...] Of course, the other company that consistently finds itself in the crosshairs of the privacy debate is Facebook, and given that it makes so much from behavioral advertising, its Messages product/feature seems potentially poised to be the latest privacy battleground for the social network [Reuters] [...]

Well, considering that I’ve received friend requests from total strangers on my private emails for years, I would say, yes ‘privacy is dead’. But that doesn’t make me want to hand over the rest of my intimate details to the company that caused it.
It’s kind of ironic that they started out as ‘the safest site on the web’.

Posted by JoePublic | Report as abusive

Facebook is already sharing information that I, obviously, never shared or agreed to share on Facebook, since I have never joined. They have already taken the liberty of passing my private email information without consent.
The statement by their CEO/Founder, that ‘Privacy is and should be dead’ is a clearcut admission of guilt of a global invasion of privacy. The only thing Facebook should be trusted with is a jail cell.

Posted by JoePublic | Report as abusive