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What’s the Difference Between Facebook and a Stranger on the Street?

Catherine Crump,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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May 25, 2011

“Can you guys give us a list of every friend you’ve ever had? In alphabetical order, please.” This question, posed by a pair of geeky guys to two blondes, is part of a great satire of Facebook put together by the Australian show Hungry Beast. The video makes you stop and think about just how much personal information Facebook is learning about our friends, our families, and our lives — information most of us would never share with a stranger.

Please note that by playing this clip You Tube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see You Tube’s privacy statement on their website and Google’s privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU’s privacy statement, click here.

We shouldn’t have to choose between participating in an increasingly essential social community and keeping control of our personal information.

Today Facebook has 500 million users. So many of us use the service to communicate and connect about everything, from commenting on our daily activities to announcing engagements and sharing photos of newborns to participating in political activism. Our willingness to do that is what has made the company so successful and catapulted Mark Zuckerberg from an unknown Harvard undergrad to Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

The more we share on Facebook, the more important its privacy settings become. Few people want that goofy Halloween photo to be the first thing that pops up whenever someone Googles them, or are happy if our colleagues and every future employer can learn our religious and political beliefs. We all deserve to make those choices ourselves rather than learn that someone else has made them for us.

That is why the steady erosion of Facebook’s privacy policy matters. We can’t make intelligent choices when Facebook’s privacy practices shift so frequently that even diligent users are uncertain what information they’re sharing, what they’re keeping private, and how to use the privacy settings that do exist. The ACLU is working to push for more user control so we can take part in online communities like Facebook without sacrificing our right to control the information that we choose not to share with the whole world.

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