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Facebook and Privacy Don't Mix Well

Facebook is nearing a settlement with the FTC over privacy charges, but expecting a social network to be private is a little silly.

Rumor has it that Facebook is close to reaching a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to settle charges related to privacy. While the privacy settlement may sound like a good idea, it is sort of a smoke and mirrors exercise because the reality is that privacy and social networking are polar opposites that don't play nicely together.

One of my PCWorld peers, Jon P. Mello Jr., took a close look at what we know of the settlement terms, and found it lacking. The conditions of the settlement seem to address only a certain set of privacy concerns, varies based on when you joined Facebook, and doesn't affect new features that Facebook rolls out in the future. It is basically a slap on the wrist for something that occurred in 2009 which appears to do more to confuse the privacy issues than resolve them.

Face it--"Facebook privacy" is an oxymoron. It is a social network. The name alone implies a network of connected individuals who are social with one another. Asking a social network to concern itself with privacy is like asking a rock concert to try not to be so loud, or asking a swimming pool to not be so wet.

When Google introduced its latest attempt at social networking--Google+, many cheered the concept of Circles as a victory for privacy. Google+ Circles let you create separate social networks within the social network. You can have Circles for family, close friends, co-workers, your softball team, or any other collection of people you can think of. Facebook followed suit and added a feature that lets you post updates so they can only be viewed by certain groups.

The concept sounds nice, but the reality is that it provides a false sense of security while actually confusing the privacy issue even further. Contacts can exist in more than one group, like a close friend who is also a co-worker, or a cousin who is also on your softball team. When posts are commented on, it often exposes them in different ways than originally intended, and posts can be reshared unless you take extra steps to try and lock it down.

You need a Venn diagram cross-referenced with a spreadsheet to track which group or groups are supposed to see a given post. If you call in sick to work, you'd better be very careful about which social networking contacts you share updates and pictures with from your day at the beach.

There is some privacy there, and both Facebook and Google continue to hone privacy controls and add features to give users more granular control over who can see their information. At the end of the day, though, these are social networks designed to share information with others.

You wouldn't be surprised that a rock concert is loud, or that a swimming pool is wet, so don't be shocked when you learn that a social network shares data. It is better to assume that anything you post on a social network may one day be public, and think carefully about posting that rant about how fat and lazy your boss is no matter which group you think you are sharing it with.

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