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Facebook's Instant Personalization Is the Real Privacy Hairball

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Facebook at its f8 conference yesterday launched tools for websites to add a social layer by bringing over Facebook friend connections. These social plugins are available to any web developer and use a simple piece of code to add a Facebook frame onto a page, instantly make that page social. So, for example, if you visit, you could see what news stories your friends liked and shared there.

CNN doesn’t actually see that happening — to the news org it’s just a box it leaves open on its site for Facebook to populate — but it’s presumably happy because users get a more personal experience and stick around longer. And users don’t get identified for simply visiting a site; they have to log in to Facebook through a dialog box in order for their presence and activities to be shared with their Facebook friends.

Facebook also introduced a way for certain sites to push this further than everyone else. Three carefully chosen launch partners — Microsoft’s (s MSFT), Yelp and Pandora — have access to what Facebook is calling “instant personalization.” This is a powerful, inventive and creepy tool that the company hopes to extend to other partners but is testing the waters with these three first.

Ta-da! It’s personal

Instant personalization means that if you show up to the Internet radio site Pandora for the first time, it will now be able to look directly at your Facebook profile and use public information — name, profile picture, gender and connections, plus anything else you’ve made public — to give you a personalized experience. So if I have already publicly stated through my Facebook interests page that I like a musical artist — say, The Talking Heads — the first song I hear when I go to Pandora will be a Talking Heads song or something that Pandora thinks is similar.

The idea is that Pandora is a somewhat hard concept to explain to new users — before it existed, people didn’t have their own personalized radio stations based on similarities between artists and song. Now, new users will derive value from Pandora before they even sign up. The first time they load the page it will be to their favorite music.

This new sign-up customization has the biggest privacy implications of everything Facebook unveiled yesterday. Until now, when you browsed the web, it was safe to assume you were anonymous until you actively logged into a site. But in recent years, behavioral advertisers have started following us around as we browse, using cookies to find out where we’ve been in order to offer up customized ads on new pages we visit. (So if I’ve been shopping on Kayak for an upcoming trip, I might get ads about similar flights and travel destinations showing up on a page I visit later that day.) In the post-f8 world, when you show up to Yelp having never been there before, the page will now show a feed of restaurants and stores that your Facebook friends have liked and reviewed using Yelp before you go there.

I spoke with Facebook platform engineering lead Mike Vernal at f8 yesterday about instant personalization after having trouble grokking the concept when CEO Mark Zuckerberg threw it in as a “one last thing” during his f8 keynote. Vernal described the goal as that of creating a “magical” experience for users. However, he said Facebook is well aware that these privileges could be abused. “We’ve very cognizant of balancing building great user experiences and respecting privacy,” was how Vernal put it.

Vernal said Facebook has not finalized any plans for allowing additional sites into the instant personalization program. Users are also able to opt out entirely via a new option found at the bottom of the list on their privacy settings page. And further, if they want to prevent their friends from sharing their information with an instant personalization partner, users must block that specific application individually. Multiple Facebook employees told me the company was unsure about how to label the sensitive product and which partners were launching on it until the last minute.

I made this just for you

The problem is, users aren’t accustomed to instantly personal services, and we have no idea where that personal information is coming from. Going back to the relatively benign social plugins from the beginning of this story, it probably won’t be obvious to the casual visitor to that CNN doesn’t know anything about the story recommendations Facebook is providing. To most of us, it will look like CNN knows who we are. And further, while going to a brand-new website that instantly knows who you are might ultimately be useful, the first time it happens you’re going to freak out.

Facebook’s way of addressing that reaction is by placing an icon in every social plugin that leads back to an explanation on Facebook, and layering a big blue bar on top of the three sites — again, Microsoft’s, Pandora and Yelp — that are getting the special treatment. So when I go to Yelp today I’m greeted right up front with: “Hi Liz. Yelp is using Facebook to personalize your experience. Learn More – No Thanks.” That’s fine, but the fact is, this tool is designed to help users become acquainted with sites they’ve never been to before. So the experience is necessarily going to be foreign.

I recently signed up for a new web photo service by giving an email address and password. When I went to fill out my profile, there was already a picture of me staring back. Whoa. That’s useful, I guess — I didn’t have to find a headshot to upload yet again — but it weirded me out. It turned out the site was probably using Automattic’s (see disclosure below) Gravatar, to match my email with my profile pic. Clearly, Facebook’s not the only platform that wants to enable shortcuts to make my new web experiences better — expect this instant personalization to catch on, if users and privacy advocates don’t revolt and drive the company to drop the feature. We saw that happen with a cousin of this product, Facebook Beacon, three years ago.

But if my Facebook stream is any indication, some users have already caught onto this latest privacy tweak. Here’s one message making the rounds:

“Do NOT forget to OPT OUT of the new FB Instant Personalization sillyness. Under your Privacy Settings so 3rd parties cannot collect your personal data. Account–>Privacy Settings–>Applications & Websites–>@bottom is the Instant Personalization thing–>Uncheck Allow.”

But then, lots of people just hate change; every Facebook redesign, ever, has been protested. And so, like Facebook, we’ll have to wait to see how much instant personalization freaks people out. [digg=]

Disclosure: Automattic, maker of, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

How Facebook Should Fix Its Privacy Problem

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.

110 Responses to “Facebook's Instant Personalization Is the Real Privacy Hairball”

  1. Is anyone else upset that “instant personalization” is automatically “enabled” to share your info without you oking it first? Equally upsetting is there’s no way to contact and complain to FB personnel, offices, etc.-no “contact us”, but FB wants to let unwanteds contact me!

    Love FB, but come on-respect your users!

  2. Instant Personalization is not instantly enabled. You have to login to a partner site with you facebook credentials and allow the site to integrate your profile.

    It’s not a bad idea considering the amount of time spent by most users on fb, average of 5 hours per user each day (Yikes!!). This option allows you to integrate your lifestyle on certain websites IF you choose to login with your facebook account info.

  3. I personally love the idea of the Instant Personalization!

    Life is just too short to have it any other way. The thing about social media is that it is like a glass house. It allows people to see what is going on inside in a truthful way. It… creates a sense of Radical Honesty which is the key ingredient for progressive change.

    I’m sure the technology will be abused by dishonest money hungry advertisers and businesses. But realistically those old ways of thinking are falling apart. Good old honesty, integirity, and value is overpowering old and confused systems.

    It also plays well with Pandora which is a great new feature in my new navigation system, making life much easier! :)

  4. I think it’s pathetic that people are making such a fuss about this as if their personal details have been spilled across the stratosphere.

    It merely pulls information from your public profile, which is visible to people anyway. It’s not sharing it with anyone else, it’s not storing it, it’s not selling it, or it’s not compromising your information in any way.

    People are happy to post on forums and blogs and give their name/IP/email/website to the webmaster, yet when their name and friendlist (which is publically available) is made visible on a trusted website VIA the facebook API, people claim it’s a huge privacy issue.

    Am I missing something here? Can someone fill me in with any possible negative consequence that this new feature could surface?

  5. An immediate solution for many to these concerns (in addition to opting out of instant personalization) is to just log out of Facebook when you’re done. This prevents Facebook from getting “pinged” any time you visit a site with a social plugin, which you currently can’t opt out of. It’s a small step, but it keeps Facebook from looking over your shoulder at everything else you do online, which it then connects to all the information it has about you and your friends and family.

    Join our Facebook group to join the movement and access updates on these issues. And tell your friends. Let’s take back our privacy! Just log out!

    Group: “Just Log Out”

  6. gargoyle

    I was creeped out by the same thing as you were — instant personalization via Facebook ID, overriding all my specific subscriptions. I immediatly learned how to privatize FB because I don’t like someone else reveailing my info. (I use an aka everywhere, and reveal little)

    Then they came up with an additional privatizing push — was it last week ? and I again reviewed that my settings were “only me.” Imagine hw I felt when I saw my FB name suddenly on websites again yesterday, despite my being virtually totally private!

    Another creepy thing is Google’s Picasa’s face recognition, where you can identify all the people in your photos ONLY by their email in your gmail list! No doubt Google will then connect their faces and compromise THEIR identities too.

    So much for First Amendment rights! Nothing can be private and personal any more. 1984 30 years late.

  7. the new feature is fine, but the big mistake they made was making it opt-out instead of opt-in. that’s what killed beacon, and that’s what will kill instant personalization.