Saving Face: The Privacy Architecture of Facebook
By bblfish on Jul 25, 2009
In his very interesting thesis draft Saving Face: The Privacy Architecture of Facebook, Chris Peterson, describes through a number of real life stories some very subtle and interesting issues concerning privacy and context that arose during the rapid evolution of the now 250 million member social network.
Perhaps the most revealing of these stories is that of Junior High School student Rachel who broadcast the following distress status message
my grandmother just friend requested me. no Facebook, you have gone too far! Chris Peterson develops:
Rachel and her grandmother are close. She trusts her grandmother. She confides in her grandmother. She tells her grandmother "private" things. She is certainly closer to her grandmother than many of her Facebook Friends. So what's the big deal? Rachel explains:
Facebook started off as basically an online directory of COLLEGE STUDENTS. I couldn't wait until I had my college email so that I could set up an account of my own, since no other emails would give you access to the site. Now, that was great. One could [meet] classmates online or stay in touch with high school mates [but it] has become a place, no longer for college students, but for anyone. [About] five days ago, the worst possible Facebook scenario occurred, so bizarre that it hadn't even crossed my mind as possible. MY GRANDMOTHER!? How did she get onto facebook?...As my mouse hovered between the accept and decline button, images flashed through my mind of sweet Grandma [seeing] me drinking from an ice luge, tossing ping pong balls into solo cups full of beer, and countless pictures of drunken laughter, eyes half closed. Disgraceful, I know, but these are good memories to me. To her, the picture of my perfectly angelic self, studying hard away at school, would be shattered forever.
The paper is full of legally much more serious stories, but this one is especially revealing as it makes apparent how the flat friendship relation on Facebook does not take into account the context of the relationship. Not all frienships are equal. Most people have only very few friends they can tell everything to. And most often one tells very different stories to different groups of friends. In the physical world we intuitively understand how to behave in different contexts. One behaves one way in church, another in the bar, and yet another way in front of one's teachers, or parents. The context in real life is set by the architecture of the space we are in (something Peter Sloterdijk develops at length in his philosophical trilogy Spheres). The space in which we are speaking and the distance others have to us guides us in what we should say, and how loud we can say it. On Facebook all your friends get to see everything you say.
It turns out that it is possible to create an equivalent contextual space on Facebook using a little know and recently added feature, which allows one to build groups of friends and specify access control policies on posts per group. Chris shows clearly that this by itself is not enough: it requires a much more thorough embedding in the User Interface so that the intuitive feel one has in real life for who hears what and to whom one is speaking is available with the same clarity in the digital space. In the later part of the thesis Chris explores what such a User Interface would need to do to enable a similarly intuitive notion of space to be available.
Applications to the Social Web
One serious element of the privacy architecture of Facebook (and other similar social networks) not covered by this thesis, yet that has a very serious impact in a very large number of domains, is the constant presence of a third party in the room: Facebook itself. Whatever you say on these Social Networks, is visible not only to your group of friends, but also to Facebook itself, and indirectly to its advertisers. Communicating in Facebook puts one then in a similar frame of mind to what people in the middle ages would have been in, when mankind was under the constant, omnipotent and omniscient presence of God who could read every thought, even the most personal. Except that this God is incorporated and has a stock market value fluctuating daily.
For those who wish to escape such an omni-presence yet reap the benefits of online electronic communication, the only solution lies in the development of distributed secure social networks, of a Social Web where every body could own what they say and control who sees it. It turns out that this is possible with semantic web technologies such as foaf and access control mechanisms based on ssl.
One very positive element I take from this thesis is that the minimal technical building blocks for reconstituting a sense of context is the notion of a group and access control of resources. In a the Social Web we should be able to reconstitute this using the foaf:Group class and foaf+ssl for access control. On this basis Chris Peterson's user interface suggestions should be applicable in a distributed social network.
All in all then I found this thesis to be very rewarding and a very interesting read. I recommend it to all people interested in the Social Web.