Facebook may have taken a privacy-busting step too far

I have a personal attitude towards online privacy that would be entirely unacceptable by corporate security standards, but that is probably shared by many Facebook users.I'm pretty lax when it comes to rooting out and deleting what I probably shouldn't have said or posted on Facebook in the past, because finding that information is an almighty slog.

I have a personal attitude towards online privacy that would be entirely unacceptable by corporate security standards, but that is probably shared by many Facebook users.

I'm pretty lax when it comes to rooting out and deleting what I probably shouldn't have said or posted on Facebook in the past, because finding that information is an almighty slog. If someone really wants to waste a lot of time investigating my student-era witterings, they can do so, but it would take dedication that I doubt exists.

That said, Facebook's new Timeline feature is about to change all that. Having followed the simple instructions for activating my Timeline ahead of general release (basically, registering as a developer), I am very struck by how useful the feature is. Maybe a bit too useful.

My first impression is that the Timeline makes profiles look a lot more modern and accessible than has previously been the case. The addition of a cover photo adds personalisation to what was a pretty dull interface — it may raise fears of the kind of over-personalisation that made MySpace an affront to the eyes, but it also seems more in tune with graphically-led, yet still clean-ish, rivals such as Tumblr.

Photos are all over the place, and in a striking size. I take a bit of pride in my photographic skills, and this really is much of my recent years in picture-book form, but… wait, do I really want that picture to be so easily discoverable? I look a bit inebriated, and I don't want to remind people that I used to be skinnier. Do I delete? Do I care?

This is why corporate security policies are smart: they assume the worst. Until now, Facebook has allowed a certain amount of obscurity for older content, but that is no longer the case. It's all out there now, and it's easy to find. All that's missing is semantic search, but I'm sure Zuckerberg is already working on that.

Therefore, I'm about to spend some of my afternoon trawling through my old posts, and making sure that David®, the self-packaged product, doesn't go embarrassing himself. It will be an achingly dull task, and frankly I doubt whether I will actually delete anything — I share some of Zuckerberg's mania for honest online identities — but it's better to be sure.

All of which makes me rather glad that Facebook is only introducing some of its more privacy-busting features now, rather than earlier. Less work for me to do.

The standout feature in this regard is Facebook's new 'Health and Wellness' information section. Here, I can piece together my entire medical history on the social network. Never mind that I had an X-ray of my fractured femur as my profile picture for a while last year; now I can collate every minor or major medical procedure for the benefit of… whom exactly?

Who wants to know? It's one thing handing over medical data to those who claim some sort of genuine purpose for their systems, but why does Facebook need that information? As has been pointed out elsewhere, this kind of information turns Facebook into an actuarial goldmine.

I like Facebook. I try not to think about the way it serves my information to advertisers, which is probably a failing of mine, but at least I see the point of that. However, gathering this kind of sensitive personal information, which is only of real use to insurance people, feels like a step too far.

Why would I post it, anyway? What could a collated history of my medical affairs bring that a status update of "Dammit! There goes my finger!" cannot? Will there be some sort of link to friends' injuries and illnesses, so my friend and I can chuckle over the fact that we both had measles in the same year? Facebook is encouraging retrospective form-filling, so that can't be far off.

In short, I've always been quite blasé about Facebook, but last week's changes have made me feel uneasy. There's a limit to how much I want out there, especially if I can't see what's in it for me.