Facebook Graph Search, Your Privacy, and What You Can Do

Facebook just launched something new. That’s all you have to say, really. That in and of itself is enough to get people riled up about their privacy, or how Facebook is screwing with it. Of cour...
Facebook Graph Search, Your Privacy, and What You Can Do
Written by Josh Wolford
  • Facebook just launched something new. That’s all you have to say, really. That in and of itself is enough to get people riled up about their privacy, or how Facebook is screwing with it. Of course, simply being a member of Facebook means that you give up some level of privacy – but some people expect Facebook to do everything they can to help their profile, posts, and likes stay as private as possible. It’s a fair request, really, considering Facebook has always said that they operate with user privacy in mind.

    With the big unveiling on Graph Search, Facebook’s attempt to index all of the data available in their massive graph, Facebook hasn’t changed their tune on user privacy. At the big press event, Mark Zuckerberg made a point to say that Graph Search has no impact on user privacy. What’s private will stay private. What’s public will be public.

    How much time do you devote to fine-tuning your Facebook privacy settings? Is privacy one of your top concerns when it comes to social networking? Let us know in the comments.

    Basically, if a random person could find the info before Graph Search, they’ll be able to find it with Graph Search. If they couldn’t find it before, Graph Search won’t suddenly make it available. We can take Facebook at their word on that. Seriously – you should. I can assure you that Facebook is not going to change the privacy details on any of your posts, likes, photos, etc. Sleep tight.

    Ah, Facebook, you so sly

    There is one thing, however, that is a tad worrisome. You probably don’t know this, but as of now, you are unable to opt out of being featured in Facebook search results. You used to be able to do this, but as of mid-December, this option has been taken away from you.

    About a month ago, Facebook unveiled some new privacy controls across the site. For the most part, they were good changes. Facebook added a “privacy shortcuts” tab to their blue bar that follows users around the site – wherever they go. From this tab, users can access important privacy information and settings like “who can see my stuff” and “who can contact me.”

    Facebook also made improvements to the Activity log – your Timeline privacy nerve center. They also made a big change to third-party app permissions, splitting the long-serving single permission into two separate permissions – one asks if Facebook can post on users’ behalf, and the other asks to access their personal info.

    Somewhat tucked away inside these new settings was the big change to search visibility. Below, you can read what Facebook actually said but in short, Facebook removed your ability to opt out of showing up in search results.

    Facebook started as a directory service for college students, and today we offer a whole variety of services, such as news feed, photo uploads and mobile messaging. As our services have evolved, our settings have, too.

    Everyone used to have a setting called “Who can look up my timeline by name,” which controlled if someone could be found when other people typed their name into the Facebook search bar. The setting was very limited in scope, and didn’t prevent people from finding others in many other ways across the site.

    Because of the limited nature of the setting, we removed it for people who weren’t using it, and have built new, contextual tools, along with education about how to use them. In the coming weeks, we’ll be retiring this setting for the small percentage of people who still have it.

    Facebook said that the opt out was not a very popular feature anyway, with only a small percentage of users choosing to remove themselves from all search results. But with over a billion monthly active users, even a 1% usage rate would be 10 million+. No matter how Facebook put it in December, this was a pretty significant shift in a users’ ability to control their own privacy on the site.

    Of course, we mentioned at the time that it was hard not to think about this move in the context of Facebook’s much-rumored foray into search. But the tweak didn’t quite come into focus until Facebook unveiled Graph Search.

    What Facebook has done is disallow users to remove themselves from search a month before releasing a giant new product that relies on user visibility in search. For the Graph Search to be useful to anyone, people have to appear in the results. When I search “people who went to Harvard and like The Winklevoss Twins,” I expect to turn up at least some results from people whose info in set to public, or “friends or friends.”

    Well played, Facebook.

    Privacy by Obscurity

    So now that you’re on the grid without the ability to opt out, what does that mean for your privacy? Who’s going to be able to find you using Graph Search?

    Unfortunately for those concerned with privacy, probably more people.

    But it’s not because any of your information is any more public than it already was. Once again, Facebook isn’t lying about that. You’ll probably be found more often simply because Graph Search is a better search tool that makes it easier to find stuff.

    Previously, Facebook users could rest on the principle of security through obscurity (or privacy by obscurity, for our purposes). That line of thinking goes something like this:

    “Sure, I have some public information out there. But unless someone is specifically looking for it or for me, it’s kind of hard to find.”

    And that line of thinking is true, for most circumstances. If I wanted to find you, I would have to be actively looking for you. There was no real, reliable way to simply stumble upon your Facebook profile (with consistency), and definitely no way to find you based on your likes, photos, and interests.

    Now there is, of course. If I search “people from Hoboken that like Bon Jovi,” your name may pop up. I don’t know you, and I never would have organically searched for you. But Graph Search has led me to you, and your adorable puppy photos, and information on your penchant for fine wines and spirits. I basically know you now.


    Quick, what the hell do I do then?

    There’s good news! Facebook gives you a lot of control over your own privacy. The bad news is that shoring up your privacy can often be a tedious process.

    First things first: You can’t remove yourself from appearing in Graph Search results altogether. We just covered that. There’s no big red opt-out button. But what you can do is limit the scenarios in which you’ll pop up in a Graph Search result.

    As you would expect, much of Facebook’s indexing has to do with what users “like.” So if the Graph Search didn’t know what you liked, or better yet wasn’t allowed to show what you liked, you could make sure that you didn’t appear in results for that particular page. Luckily, Facebook allows you to edit the visibility of your likes.

    If you were to set that visibility to “Only Me,” you would not appear in Graph Searches involving that signifier. So if you removed “wine” from your visibility, my search of “people who like Bon Jovi and wine” wouldn’t drag you up in the net. Your settings also allow you to make other key information more private, such as occupation, relationship status, hometown, and more. Long story short, you can make yourself less visible in Graph Search results but not entirely invisible.

    But if someone finds you, and goes to your Timeline, what then? Remember this: Activity Log is your friend.

    Activity log, accessible from the top of your Timeline, allows you to micromanage all types of activity that appears on your Timeline. Want to change the public visibility of a status? You can do that on the Activity Log.

    Want to remove activity from your Timeline altogether? Activity Log has you covered. So even if you’re found via Graph Search, you can control exactly what people see when they look at your Timeline. You can lock it down pretty tight, if that’s your desire.

    The Bottom Line

    With the risk of being labeled a Facebook apologist, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Facebook gives their users as much or even more control over their privacy settings than is reasonable to expect. Facebook is a service, and yes, you may be the product. But Facebook doesn’t force you to sign up, and you are not entitled to Facebook. You are not entitled to Google, Twitter, or any other similar service either. These are companies, who provide a service. In Facebook’s case, it’s social networking.

    In the grand scheme of things, the amount of information that Facebook forces to be public is very small. It basically consists of your name, profile picture, and your networks. Nearly every other action you make on the site can be hidden from the world, if you so choose. Sure, wading through the Activity log and setting up individual privacy protocols for every post, like, photo, and app action you make is tedious at times. But it’s there, and it’s available to you.

    The bottom line is this: If you really want to take yourself off the grid, you can. If you set all your likes to “only I can see this,” then nobody will be able to find you through most Graph Search queries. Make your photos private, and nobody will be able to see that shot of your girlfriend eating ice cream at that awesome creamery when they search for “creameries, San Francisco” on Graph Search.

    Or you could always delete your Facebook account.

    On the other hand, Facebook did alter search visibility settings a month before unveiling a product that relies entirely on search visibility. Tricky tricky, Facebook.

    How concerned are you about Facebook’s new Graph Search and your privacy? Let us know in the comments.

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