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Is Facebook Beacon a Privacy Nightmare?

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Mark Zuckerberg & Co. stood up in front of the advertising community in New York today and unveiled Facebook Ads, an ad system that allows companies to use the Facebook social graph and to develop highly targeted ads. Large brands such as Coca-Cola (KO), Sony Pictures (SNE) and Verizon (VZ) have signed on for this effort. Part of the engine powering this new ad system is called Beacon, which takes data from 44 web destinations and mashes it up with Facebook’s internal information to help build more focused advertising messages.

While it seems to be a clever idea, a quick review reveals that Beacon might turn out to be a privacy hairball for the company. [digg=]

The 44 sites that have partnered with Facebook include everyone from Kongregate, LiveJournal, NYTimes (NYT), Sony Online, Blockbuster (BBI),, STA Travel, The Knot, TripAdvisor, Travel Ticker, TypePad, viagogo, Vox, Yelp, and

These partner sites put a little a piece of Facebook javascript on their web site and certain information, cleverly (and innocuously) labeled as a user alert, is sent to Facebook. For instance, Fandago users can publish information about the movies they saw. It all seems like a clever idea because it lets Facebook triangulate your likes and dislikes even more, and deliver more focused ads.

Facebook Beacon provides advanced privacy controls so Facebook users can decide whether to distribute specific actions from participating sites with their friends.

Reading that line prompted the following questions, which I put to Facebook:

1. Can consumers opt out of this?
2. If yes, does their data get erased?
3. Will the sites for example, Fandango, stop sending all personal and any kind of information to Facebook once the user opts out?
4. Why didn’t they make this an opt-in feature, instead of being an opt-out feature?

Their PR spokesperson emailed me this response:

Users can opt-out of Beacon on a per-site basis. They can opt-out for each action, or they can opt-out to never have an affiliated site send stories to Facebook. For instance, a user that buys The Notebook from Blockbuster can stop a story from being published about it, or she can opt-out of having Blockbuster publish any actions she takes on the Blockbuster site.

The response doesn’t seem to answer my questions and basically makes it seem like users have control over this data, when in reality, this is a privacy disaster waiting to happen. The javascript on the Fandango site pops up a little screen which asks if you want to publish the information on Facebook. If you say no, your friends won’t see the information, but apparently Facebook still receives it. This means that if you are a Facebook member, Facebook will know what you are doing on each of their partner sites. And there is no way for you to opt out of that. Or is there? I asked Facebook to clarify and I am still waiting for them to write back.

As for the rest of their announcement, while long and elaborate, it doesn’t contain any information we haven’t already seen. MySpace (NWS) has been doing brand specific-pages for a while now, in addition to using other targeting techniques.

233 Responses to “Is Facebook Beacon a Privacy Nightmare?”

  1. thegrahambaileyblog

    I have to believe this will end in lawsuits. This whole system seems incredibly flawed. Facebook as an organisation seems to believe more in profit systems than a good user experience.

  2. Google may have IP addresses but it doesn’t always have names.

    A family of four will all be doing completely different searches from the same IP. Facebook’s user data is pretty awesome.

    The other thing is you might be doing a search for something dodgy on Google and it’s not like Google goes out and tells all your friends about it. Sounds like thats what Facebooks going to do.

    I got to say I would have taken the money if I was that Mark guy. Web 2.0 is about to crash in a major way and with this aggressive new ad push facebook could quickly become another friendster.

    I’m already thinking of ditching my real account accept I want to test out the ad programs first.

  3. Just because it’s not obvious, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Google knows more about you than Facebook.

    Beacon will work because kids like to brag about what they bought. If you’re over 24, you might not understand.

  4. @Mike Puchol, exactly. Anyone using Google Analytics has tracking information about users that’s being logged. Or Quantcast. Or you name it — there’s no end to JavaScript tracking going on out there. As you say, Om — Facebook will still be able to tie that back to particular profiles, but Microsoft and Yahoo both have ad programs that do the same thing, as well. The only real opt-out is not to take JavaScript.

  5. I think Facebook’s rush to world domination runs the risk of too aggressive, non-consumer friendly things like Social Ads and Beacon. One question a friend of mine asked was what Facebook would do with Beacon-supplied purchasing data that I decided not to include in my feed – do they still retain it? That would suck pretty hugely.

    I put some thinking into what I see as a pro forma solution for policy-based control in a post at:

  6. this will soon turn into a high profile facebook revolt, just as it happend in the feeds feature over a year ago. young users are very techsavy and are quick to call foul if they feel their privacy is at risk. i think that’s what has really help facebook grow: ilusion of privacy. i am the type willing to let go of a little privacy in order to say: get better amazon recomendations or movies in netflix. some users don’t feel the same. using the arbirary opt in is probably going to piss a lot of people when the sheet starts to hit the fan, just like woopie said. it’s going to be kind of funny seeing the not so fb savy screw up by sahring the unshareable!!!!

  7. I don’t think there is a (serious) privacy issue in project beacon, (like there isn’t one with Gmail for example), the question is more do I seriously want ALL my friends to know which book I bought from Amazon or what colour underwear I ordered from Calvin Klein?

  8. Now…what about Google? Is there a way to opt-out of their tracking systems? Put into the same bag:

    1. The millions of sites that use Google Analytics’ javascript tracking code, which sends information to Google about the browsing habits of a particular IP addresses. Compare this to Facebook’s 44 sites…you at the back, stop laughing!

    2. The millions of people who run searches on Google’s engine, thus giving information to Google about their search interest, also with their IP address.

    3. The millions of people using GMail, which openly admits to scanning the contents of sent and received messages for marketing purposes – thus tying #1 and #2 above to a real identity (the IPs you use to your email addresses).

    4. Geolocation of the above data by IP address can also give indication of travel and movement of each user.

    Anyone remember that initiative by Google to listen to your TV by using your PC’s microphone, and targeting ads as a result? I think they dropped that one, but who is the biggest threat to privacy?

  9. Martin Lawrence

    A quote by Albert Einstein comes to mind: “In order to form an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, above all, be a sheep”

    Could someone (Craig Newmark, Jimmy Wales?) build an open social platform that is NOT a scheme to maximally exploit private information?

    While the scheme is the perfect solution to present billboards to a flock of sheep, I DO hope that intelligent individuals will not fall for this.

  10. This is a major problem. it’s the quick money. Facebook could become the 21st century rolodex, its clean, “trustworthy”, organized and… easy.

    However, “trustworthy comes into question here, BIG TIME. To the point really where there is no grey area, Facebook is largely fed to the sharks for a flounder foray.

    That’s right, Om has got it down and that’s that.

    Facebook won’t be worth 1/15 of what people say it is when some does the same EXACT thing without this breach of privacy. And that’s what it is… when you sign up, the doted line doesn’t QUITE explain your susceptibility, perhaps deep in print, but there should really be a skull & cross bones like a smoking signal if you think giving out your identity is hazardous to your health.

    Just my 2 cents.


  11. The truly amazing thing about FB is how much personal data users enter. (and I mean tech-savvy, sophisticated people). Age, gender, marital status, religion, location, etc. What are they thinking? FB will redefine the art of identity-theft, phishing, and the like. For the bads guys, this is a beautiful place.

    And regarding the so-called targeted ads (really socially engineered ads) Except for searching, I’d rather these types of passive ads be less targeted so when I buy stuff, I at least have a sense that I bought it for other than manipulated reasons. There’s enough of that pressure now.

  12. do you honestly think they designed an access control matrix for fifty million users across dozens of sites? no way.

    users won’t care at first until someone accidentally broadcasts to their social graph that they have been buying sex toys, viagra, or something else cheeky. then when it all stars leaking, the “WTF?!?!?!” phase will start and fb will throw out some patches to scan out “questionable” referrals, etc.

    in the end something will have to replace cookies. in the current model, users are forced to trust the black box they can’t look inside…even fb can’t look inside it for any particular user because there is just too much data.

  13. Your breakdown clearly shows the privacy problem and as a FB user I am most likely going to avoid going to the partner sites altogether rather than sit down and opt out of each.

    I am sure there are lots of people who don’t want their purchases or web visits revealed to anyone. The “Share” feature on FB allows me to share what I want already and gives me complete control, I will never hand over that control.

    I would much have preferred to see that the ad platform was only focused on the branded pages plus even better demographic targeting than offered by Facebook Flyers Pro.