IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Facebook: The 'Evil Interface?'

Facebook's recent privacy changes are so confusing, even the experts had a tough time figuring them out. So what about you? Is your personal information now flapping in the breeze?
/ Source:

Pop quiz! What do you call "the act of creating deliberately confusing jargon and user-interfaces which trick your users into sharing more info about themselves than they really want to?"

Give up? Don’t feel dumb. Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights advocacy organization, had a tough time wrapping its collective brain around the concept as it built its tutorial to help users through Facebook’s most recent privacy changes. So EFF turned to Facebook and Twitter users for help.

Suggestions for a term to easily describe mishegas such as “Facebook's bizarre new ‘opt-out’ procedures” rolled in. These included "bait-and-click," "bait-and-phish," "dot-confidence games," "confuser-interface-design,” and though EFF didn’t mention the social network specifically, more than a few that made creative use of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s name, such as this one called out on EFF’s site from @heisenthought on Twitter:

“How about ‘zuck’? As in: ‘That user-interface totally zuckered me into sharing 50 wedding photos. That kinda zucks’"

Apparently people feel pretty strongly about Facebook’s latest privacy rollback, a new move to “personalize your (Web) experience using your public Facebook information,” even if you don’t fully understand what it means, let alone how to “opt out” of generously offering your personal info with the social network’s partner sites.

Take, for example, EFF’s favorite suggestion from @volt4ire, “Evil Interfaces.”

It’s a reference from a talk given by West Point Professor Greg Conti at the 2008 Hackers on Planet Earth conference, EFF notes. But if you want to get into Sci Fi movie references, consider this. As little as two years ago, the idea of Facebook usurping Google as the projected “Skynet” of our increasingly tech-dependent lives would’ve been laughable — or at least laughably lame in the running joke that sooner rather than later, our lives will be run by a “Terminator”-style artificial omnipresence.

But the most recent (and most egregious) privacy rollbacks make it unsettlingly obvious that the world’s largest social network is well placed to own the Internet, and all of your personal information, too. Let’s review. Here’s the bare-bones bullet list of what’s different:

If you visit Facebook’s partner sites Yelp, Pandora or Microsoft Docs, your information is shared unless you opt out on each, individual Web site. If your friends haven’t adequately battened down their own privacy stuff, then by proxy, you’ve shared their information, too.

Your interests are now linked to pages everyone can see. For example, if you have “pornography” as one of your interests, and you don’t actively opt out, you are now linked to the “Pornography” interest page on Facebook, viewable by your boss, Grandma, the world.

How exactly do you batten down your info, at least as much info as you can? Good question. More than a few publications have offered instructions on how to navigate opting out, but as EFF noted when it was researching and writing its own guide, more than a couple weren’t complete.

“These aren’t casual users not paying attention,” points out EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. “These are people who are trying to make instructions, and they still can’t file a complete ‘opt-out’ guide.”

So confusing are the directions, that Opsahl’s observation is critical of Facebook rather than those trying to guide others through the process. The incomplete guides he’s seen miss the final step in the process.

You can’t just opt-out of having your information shared on a partner site. You must go to each individual site and opt out there, too. Currently, there are three partner sites, but every time Facebook adds another partner, you’ll have to go to that partner’s site and opt out again.

“Our highest priority is to keep and build the trust of the more than 400 million people who use our service every month,” read a recent post on the Facebook blog titled “Answers to Your Questions on Personalized Web Tools.” “To do so, we've developed powerful tools to give people control over what information they want to share, when they want to share it and with whom.”

The confusing and lengthy process of opting out from using these powerful tools is either clever by design or simply negligent. “It’s hard to tell, but it’s bad,” says Opsahl. “Look at the comparison. Opting out requires several pages that aren’t linked together. You have to confirm, hit OK, and repeat the process. Conversely, it takes just one page to opt back in to an application, check one box, and you’re back. No confirmations necessary.

There are those who take a “toothpaste-out-of-the-tube” philosophy to Internet privacy, as in “Hey, it’s all out there anyway. Privacy is dead. Blah blah blah.”

But consider messages you share with one group may not be appropriate for another group … or your dad. In this way, Facebook, with its evaporating privacy policy, has turned into that really lousy friend who promises to keep all your secrets, then blabs to everyone … and then acts affronted when you call her on it.

The seemingly simple answer is just to quit Facebook altogether. Obviously, that’s just not going to happen. We are social beings, and we’re hooked. “People continue to be on Facebook because their friends are there,” says Opsahl. “It’s not love of Facebook or its privacy practice that keeps people on the site. It’s loyalty to their friends.”

EFF offers a thorough tutorial on its Web site, as well as the video embedded in this story. Do yourself a favor. Stop playing FarmVille for two seconds and check it out. According to Ophsal, “If you follow all the EFF instructions, and Facebook is being honest, you will have successfully opted out.”

Helen A.S. Popkin rants about online privacy, then begs you to follow or friend her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter, because that's how she rolls.