Is privacy too complex for social media to handle alone?

Third parties are now offering tools to help users manage their privacy settings, but does this highlight that Facebook and others aren't doing a good enough job?

Social media networks like Facebook aren't completely fulfilling their privacy obligations to users, and that's because the problem has grown beyond their control, according to NetIQ identity, security, and governance business manager Ian Yip and AVG security advisor Michael McKinnon.

AVG recently released an application called PrivacyFix Family, which has the purpose of leading users through securing their privacy settings on social networks. Yip said that the existence of such a tool, however, highlights how bad general awareness of privacy is on social networking sites.

"The fact that something like PrivacyFix needs to be around for us to understand exactly how much somebody can and can't see of us is a sign that Facebook isn't making it easy enough for us to understand these things," Yip said, naming just one of the social media sites.

He said that users of social networks are beginning to understand that they are the product, but that there is an imbalance between companies like Facebook making money and serving the privacy interests of its users.

As an example, he said that many privacy settings should protect users by default, rather than forcing users to seek the settings out for themselves.

"Facebook should take a little bit more of proactive stance towards protecting our privacy. Their behaviour in the past has been to see how far they can get away with doing something, and then asking for forgiveness later," he said.

"Social media sites needs to take more accountability, because privacy is a complicated thing. We've been struggling with privacy settings and privacy regulations and privacy guidelines for many, many years. For the average person, I wouldn't say it's impossible, but it's extremely difficult to understand where the boundaries are."

Facebook defended its approach to privacy, telling ZDNet that its policies are transparent, and that it views itself as an innovator around the privacy controls it provides for its customers.

"Our privacy practices have been extensively audited by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner and found time after time that we have very strong and effective privacy policies and practices," a spokesperson for the company told ZDNet.

"We develop our products with 'privacy by design' in mind and to ensure our final products meet a high standard of privacy."

But the design of Facebook and other social media sites is what Yip takes issue with primarily.

"It's a usability problem first of all, and [then] it's an education problem," he said.

AVG's McKinnon almost sympathised with the social media giants, highlighting the difficulties that they face when trying to create privacy settings.

He said that there was no one-size-fits-all approach to privacy, because each individual has their own opinion of what is acceptable. With each privacy setting added, the problem becomes exponentially more difficult.

"With privacy, the objectives are very, very different, and it's different for different people, and this is where the complexity comes in. It's really up to yourself, it's your personal choice as to how you want your privacy to be customised," he said.

"Facebook are looking at ways to monetise their platform and earning revenue to drive their company. Privacy and security appear to be very important to the likes of Google and Facebook, there's no denying that ... but the problem is so large that it's so difficult for them to tackle."

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