Here's frequent Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton who writes "Facebook apparently hired a PR firm that tried to seduce some pundits into writing negative editorials about Google. The 'attack angle' would have been that Google was endangering users' privacy by scraping information about users from Facebook and making such information easier to find with a Google search." Hit the link below to read the rest of Bennett's story.
The reliably cynical Seth Finkelstein commented that the attempted editorial-planting was just "often implicit dealing made explicit", (i.e. that pundits are drafted as fronts for corporate publicity campaigns like this all the time, and that the PR firm in this case spoiled the game by rudely blurting out the terms of the deal, like a guy offering to buy a girl dinner if she'll sleep with him). Steven Levy of Wired opined that with regard to the privacy issues, Facebook was the real villain for exposing information in the first place that many users would rather keep private.
Some perspective here: In 2008, I was corresponding with a high school student (using one of the Circumventor sites to get around their local school Internet blocker, naturally) who mentioned that he was able to see all the personal information of other students in his Facebook high school network -- including email address, phone number, and home address, if the user had uploaded that information to Facebook -- even if those users had not confirmed him as a friend. (Facebook allows users to join one or more "networks" indicating their school affiliation, workplace, city of residence, etc. -- such networks are distinct from Facebook groups and fan pages.) Double-checking with a few more users in the same network and in other high school networks, we found that it really was possible for any member of a high school network to view the profiles of any other member of that high school network and see all of their personal information.
Unlike other types of "networks" on Facebook, it is not possible to join a high school network simply by specifying it in your preferences. However, all of the students that I corresponded with said that in order to join their high school networks, they simply had to request to join the network, and then get a friend request confirmed by an existing member of that high school network. Which means that conning your way into the network would be easy: either (1) create a profile with the name and photo of a real student at that school, and send out friend requests to that student's friends, hoping that one of them would confirm you (not remembering that they had already friended that person under their real account), or (2) create a profile with a hot girl's picture and send out random friend requests to a bunch of guys in the network. Once you got confirmed, you'd have access to all the personal information that any student in that high school had posted on their profile. (I hasten to add that we did not actually try either of these things, but it stands to reason that it would work, since it wasn't functionally any different from what all of those students actually had to do in order to join their networks in the first place!)
I sent a message to Facebook's security team about this, and got a non-form-letter response from a real person -- their reply, however, was that this behavior was by design:
We believe this allows for greater sharing and helps make the site more useful for people, though we also recognize the potential for misuse. That's why we've built a peer verification system around the joining of high school networks. We also use automated systems to detect and flag anomalous behavior, like lots of messages sent to non-friends or a high percentage of ignored friend requests.
Smart, but probably not secure enough. For one thing, if someone is creating disposable accounts to send out friend requests in hopes of getting into a high school network, it only has to work once, so even if most of their accounts get flagged for "anomalous behavior," they only need one that doesn't get flagged. And even if that account does get flagged and cancelled later, by that time it might be too late, if they've already grabbed enough users' information. In any case, some time between 2008 and 2011, Facebook did change the behavior of high school networks so that members can no longer see the personal information of other members without a confirmed friend request. But this loophole was not that difficult to find, and it's likely that at least a few other users had discovered the same issue.
Now, imagine what would have happened if Facebook had announced that, for a fee of a few hundred dollars, they were offering CDs for sale containing the names, addresses, mobile phone numbers, and instant messenger names of all the high school students on their site (along with, of course, all the photos those students had posted of themselves). It goes without saying that after the class action lawsuits had finished, there'd be nothing left of the company but a smoldering crater. Now, I'm not suggesting that Facebook's security policy for high school networks was anywhere near as bad as selling CDs with all the personal information of their high school users, but it's worth thinking about why it should not be considered as bad. In either case, anybody willing to spend a few hundred dollars (or, equivalently, a few hundred dollars' worth of effort -- the effort to discover the loophole, and then to crank out the friend requests) could obtain the personal information of as many high school students as they wanted. What's the difference?
Well, obviously, there's the message that it would send if a company like Facebook offered to sell CDs full of users' personal information. It would lower the bar for future behavior by similar companies, it would make users extremely cynical about trusting the motivations of social networking sites, and in the long run it might even cause courts to decide that users had no reasonable expectation of privacy when joining those sites, because it was "common knowledge" and "common practice" that those sites offered up people's personal information for sale! On the other hand, if Facebook makes that information available indirectly through "benign neglect" -- by, for example, forcing you to create a fake high school profile and send out a bunch of friend requests and create a new profile from scratch if your first one gets canned -- that's far less likely to cause the side effects I just listed. MySpace is not going to get the idea that it's OK to start selling CDs of users' personal information because, hey, Facebook let people pry out the same information if they jumped through enough hoops.
But what this means is that fairly mild privacy issues, if they arise as a result of deliberate choice by a company like Facebook, are likely to get more press attention than far more serious privacy issues that arise as a result of benign neglect. Because when Facebook makes a deliberate choice that affects user privacy (like sharing users' preferences with Pandora), the pundits and the public are reacting to the direct privacy implications of that action, plus all the auxiliary issues, like the "message" that it sends, and the precedent that it sets for future actions by that company and other companies. Whereas if an issue arises as a result of neglect (as in the case of PlayStation Networks users' credit cards being stolen), people are reacting only to the direct privacy implications of the incident, so the issue has to be much more serious to get the equivalent amount of press.
For example, the right reason to be concerned about Facebook sharing users' personal information with Pandora, was the principle that it violated -- if users say "no" to sharing their personal information, Facebook shouldn't be allowed to switch that choice unilaterally. But as for the practical implications -- come on. Facebook and Pandora are both big faceless corporate behemoths as far as we're concerned, so why would we trust one with our personal data but not the other? Besides, what if Facebook had simply bought out Pandora? Then they could share all of our personal information with all the employees of the newly merged Facepanbookdora, and the exact same people would have had access to the exact same data, but it wouldn't have violated the agreement against sharing information with "third parties," because they wouldn't be a third party any more.
What this means is that if you're an ardent cyber-rights hippie like me, then yes, you should care about the privacy issues that set the blogosphere afire, even if they're fairly minor privacy issues that are magnified out of proportion because they speak to the deliberate intentions of the companies involved. It matters that Facebook decided one day to share our music preferences with Pandora, even if it doesn't hurt anyone.
On the other hand, if you simply care about threats to your personal privacy, then you should heavily discount the noise being made about deliberate choices taken by companies like Facebook, and pay far more attention to dangers of benign neglect by the company guarding your privacy, when that benign neglect is exploited by malicious outsiders. If you have a stalker and you're worried about them finding your Facebook profile, it makes no sense to be worried about Google scraping the information from the public version of your Facebook profile, if it's the same information that your stalker would be able to see anyway if they were logged in to Facebook themselves. It's far more likely that your stalker would try to exploit a weakness in Facebook's privacy settings -- for example, ingratiating themselves with one of your Facebook friends and getting them to accept a friend request, so that they can then see any information on your Facebook profile that is viewable to "friends of friends." Maybe you knew about that already, but if you didn't, you wouldn't know it from reading all the punditry about the Facebook-Google kerfuffle.