Web Sites Let Others See Users' Personal Data

By Journal, Wall Street | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Web Sites Let Others See Users' Personal Data

Journal, Wall Street, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

In November, users of social-networking site Facebook Inc. started seeing updates on what their friends had bought online. Last month, users of a Google Inc. news service began receiving lists of articles their friends and acquaintances had read online. And earlier this month, Sears Holdings Corp. let people type anyone's name, phone number and address on a Web site to learn about their Sears purchases.

All three examples have one thing in common: The companies allowed Web users to access personal information about other people they know -- sometimes without the knowledge of those people.

Online-privacy debates used to center on how Web sites share their users' information with the government, advertisers or complete strangers. But in recent months, a new question has emerged: How much should your friends and acquaintances really know about you?

Internet-privacy experts, and in some cases the users themselves, are demanding more controls on how information is shared with so- called friends. Web sites, in turn, are taking steps to make it easier for users to change their privacy settings and determine exactly which friends see what information.

The data-sharing issues grow as more companies take a page from popular social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook that let their users create pages full of details like where they live and work, who they are dating, and what their weekend plans are. People can share that information with other people by adding them as "friends," a term usually taken to describe anyone they know. As that idea has caught on, Internet companies have taken it further. If people like sharing basic information, the thinking goes, they'll love sharing even more particulars -- like their shopping and reading habits.

"These companies think, 'Oh, neat, look what we can do,' but some consumers respond by saying, 'Wait, we didn't want you to do that,"' says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

For consumers, there is no silver bullet to solving these privacy issues because each Web site shares information differently. So right now the onus is on individuals to protect themselves by painstakingly visiting each site to change their settings.

Facebook in November introduced a marketing program called Beacon to keep their users on the site longer. In this feature, Overstock.com Inc., Fandango Inc. and dozens of other companies agreed to notify Facebook every time one of its users made a purchase on one of their sites. In turn, Facebook began notifying those users' friends of the purchases.

Rachel Hundley, a law student in Chapel Hill, N.C., experienced this firsthand. After the 24-year-old bought a dress and some shoes on online retailer Overstock, the online retailer notified Facebook of the purchase. Facebook in turn sent a message telling several of Hundley's friends about it. The next day, a friend commented on her "cute dress." Hundley says she was "disgusted" by the experience, saying she wanted more control over how her information was shared.

When she tried to fix the situation, she faced hurdles. She first checked a box on Facebook asking the site never to tell her friends about her Overstock purchases. But when she later looked over her privacy settings, she realized she also needed to check a separate box to keep the Web site from telling her friends about activities on other sites outside of Facebook.

Responding to criticism from Hundley and others, Facebook changed its privacy settings in December, making it easier to opt out of the program altogether. Still, because of the backlash, Overstock.com pulled out of the arrangement, although other retailers remain.

Jennifer King, a privacy researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests several privacy-strengthening steps for people who use services like e-mail, photo-sharing and social- networking sites that allow users to create lists of "friends.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Web Sites Let Others See Users' Personal Data


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?