Eyebrows were raised across the techsphere when Facebook announced it was launching a new search feature—which was to be expected, seeing as how such eyebrows are raised every time Facebook announces anything.
The concept earned some rave reviews and some privacy concerns—again, par for the course—and now a group of beta users are trying out the feature. Often to humorous and sometimes disturbing results.
Tom Scott, web tinkerer extraordinaire, is one of the beta testers, and he’s sharing some of the strange results of the testing process. Namely, that Facebook search reveals human beings across the world to be massive hypocrites. In the process, he's demonstrating how feature will make all the weird stuff you're into publicly searchable.
He whipped up a Tumbler, natch, called Actual Facebook Searches, and proceeded to lay bare, as the search feature allows you to do with ease, people who ‘Like’ both the ‘I Love My Wife’ group and the ‘Prostitutes’ page.
Scott explains his reasons for airing Facebook Search’s dirty laundry on the Tumblr’s FAQ:
I got invited to Graph Search today, started playing about with it, and got some… well, some interesting results.
I’m not sure I’m making any deeper point about privacy: I think, at this point, we’re basically all just rubbernecking - myself included. Facebook does have good privacy settings: but there are many, many people who don’t know how to use them!
So, while it’s humorous to gawk at the ‘Catholic Mothers in Italy’ who also ‘Like’ Durex condoms, Scott is actually revealing just how much of the average user’s private data is available for easy perusal online. The examples he highlights are extreme ones, and more likely to get you rooting for the exposers than the exposed—see “People in committed relationships who also ‘Like’ Ashley Madison,” the dating website for pro cheaters.
I emailed Scott to get some more of his thoughts on the potential impact of Facebook search, and he told me that his experience so far was that it may serve as a major wakeup call to folks who haven’t set their privacy settings.
“Graph Search jokes are a good way of startling people into checking their privacy settings – but most people will never actually be affected by accidentally making data ‘public’,” he said.
“Most of the danger online comes not from strangers making half-assed joke searches: it comes from people who know you. A lot of the public data fails what I call the ‘bitter ex test’: can someone who hates you ruin your life with that information?”
Scott says that some of the search data he’s stumbled across is downright “unsettling.” He says the sheer amount of private information now easily available could prove problematic—even dangerous—in some cases.
“There’s at least one search I’ve come across that could be used by sociopathic web users to cause immediate harm,” he says. When pressed, he wouldn’t provide further details in the interest of keeping said data private.
Many Facebook users have long been wary of privacy issues—to this day, Zuckerberg and company remain rather oblique about how public your data is and what rules govern its use—but few have been wary enough to log off. And many others continue to pay those settings no heed at all, treating Facebook like a friendly communal journal
It’s that kind of casual user that may be in for a surprise when Facebook Graph Search leaves beta, and suddenly makes all of their preferences, interests, and location data open to be sifted through by strangers.