Facebook has introduced a new search tool called social graph search, which lets users search across the Facebook database by users' interests. Privacy advocates aren't pleased with the new feature, arguing that it makes information about users too easy to find. Bob talks to Tom Scott, who has been given early access to the feature and has been publicizing some of his searches.
BOB GARFIELD: This month, Facebook announced a new feature called Graph Search, which allows Facebookers to locate other users, based on their declared interests and, of course, Likes. So if you want list of every Facebook-using NPR employee who self-identifies as a fan of the Prius, the names are but a click away. Privacy advocates dislike the Graph Search, partly because you can't opt out of it. In anticipation of the new feature, Facebook quietly updated its privacy rules so that no one is entirely allowed to avoid such searches. So far, only a few beta testers have been able to actually use this feature, but at least one of them immediately saw the possibilities.
Tom Scott is a British humorist who created a Tumblr to display how easily Graph Search can be turned into a humiliation engine.
TOM SCOTT: The entire top bar, the blue bar that every Facebook user knows at the top of the page, is being replaced by one big blue search box. And you can type into that pretty much anything you want, photos of my friends from last year, restaurants near me that friends of friends like, which is really, really useful. It’s actually covering every single thing that is on Facebook that’s classified as public. And that includes a lot of things that I don’t think people meant to be public.
BOB GARFIELD: The mind reels with the dystopic possibilities, but you are a humorist, so naturally you were attracted to the funny possibilities. And your Tumblr is pretty funny.
TOM SCOTT: Thank you very much. [LAUGHS] I went for the cheap jokes.
If you can look for anything anywhere in the world that anyone likes and then filter it, you can do initial things like Italian Catholics who like Durex condoms. That’s an easy, cheap sex joke. But then, because Facebook’s got all this data, you can start adding things in and making it quite creepy. You can have the mothers of Italian Catholics who like Durex condoms.
And, again, everything here is listed as public. One of the less funny ones is that you can start looking for religious information in more suppressive regimes. The most unsettling one that I was willing to put online was any family member of anyone who lives in China who is listed as a fan of Falun Gong, which is a – the banned religious organization. It's quite an impressive demonstration, as a way to startle people into realizing what’s public.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's put China aside for a moment. Let’s talk about the West, where people who post personal data on Facebook do so either because they feel comfortable that it will be available only to friends and family and maybe other casual onlookers, or because they're naïve or even stupid and don't realize that potentially compromising information sits there more or less in perpetuity. But that's a wholly different matter than people being able to trawl for certain bits of information and then be able to harvest your name and all sorts of other information about you, for God knows what nefarious purposes.
TOM SCOTT: Facebook Graph Search is interesting, it's creepy and it’s a wonderful reminder that we need to watch what we put online. As time goes on, this data is only going to become more and more searchable. Processing power only increases and Graph Search would have been impossible five, ten years ago on this amount of data. Most people who have public information on Facebook accidentally probably aren't going to end up being hurt by it. I mean, a few will take that gamble and lose, but it will be a small minority.
Graph Search in an odd anonymized form has been available to Facebook’s advertisers for, well, quite a few years now. You could drill down and just advertise to single people in New York who were interested in cats. It's available to everyone now, and it’s got names on it.
BOB GARFIELD: So let’s just say this is a fact of online life that we will have to deal with forevermore, what would you advise to ordinary Facebook users so that they do not become victims of this next wrinkle in search technology?
TOM SCOTT: My advice is generally if you wouldn’t want it splashed on a billboard in Times Square, don't put it on Facebook, don’t put it on the Web. Facebook does have very good privacy settings, if you check through them and you take the time. If you click the Privacy button that’s there, it kind of has a little padlock icon on it. You can go through lockdown. If anything says Public there, it might be worth changing it to Friends Only.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom, you did a number of searches, not all of which you posted the results of on your Tumblr. Some were too – unsettling for you share. Can you give me a general idea of the kinds of things you blundered upon?
TOM SCOTT: There was one in particular that I don't want to give people ideas for, and I realize that that sounds like I’m being overdramatic. I realize that's what I would say to make this seem nastier than it is. So you will either have to [LAUGHS] to believe me or not. There are a lot of Facebook groups that people join because of events in their past, and a lot of those groups, even though the messages in them are private, the fact that you’ve joined them isn’t. There are some searches that could be used by someone who was sociopathic to cause immediate and quite distressing harm to quite a few people.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom, thank you very much.
TOM SCOTT: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: You can visit Tom Scott's appropriately named Tumblr at actualfacebookgraphsearches.tumblr - that’s T-U-M-B-L-R – dot.com [actualfacebookgraphsearches.tumblr.com].
Facebook provided us with this comment about Graph Search and privacy, quote, “You can only see what you could already view elsewhere on Facebook. The search results follow privacy settings which are set by the owner of the content. That means you get to choose what you share and with whom.”