Microsoft's student social network, privacy concerns

Microsoft's FUSE labs are working with students to try and improve tools we use in our everyday online activities. However, privacy concerns have appeared. What should students be aware of?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer on

The social network market is saturated. Now, it seems, Microsoft wants a slice of the cake.

Microsoft's social networking project, so.cl, is aimed at the student populace -- and it is not a model intended to compete with Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. Microsoft has been very clear on this distinction, and considers its project as an accompanying tool rather than competition.

Pronounced 'social', so.cl is more than clever domain name registration. It is a project developed by Microsoft's FUSE labs using Bing's API, and aimed at students who are interested in social media. According to the computing giant, the focus of the project is to "explore the possibilities of social search for the purpose of learning."

Microsoft hopes to encourage students to 'rethink' everyday processes and consider developing new tools to improve online communication. In order to use So.cl, students must either be part of a partnered university, including the University of Washington, Syracuse University, and New York University, or be part of FUSE lab general experiments.

However, what are some of the privacy concerns students have expressed, and should be aware of?

According to the FUSE labs blog, the So.cl experiment turns our mental idea of website searches on its head, by shifting the model from 'private' to public. Your searches are broadcast to other So.cl users, and in turn, you can view other user's search data.


(Source: FUSE labs blog)

Microsoft's FUSE labs explored this issue with a University of Washington focus group, and the graph above collates the results (week 3). The group's feelings towards privacy were tracked on a weekly basis, and the results concluded privacy concerns decreased week by week.

A general trend of self-reported use revealed users were not bothered by privacy issues to a high degree.

Microsoft explained the trend as the So.cl search function, once widely used, becoming an avenue for 'self presentation, information sharing and information discovery'.

I think otherwise. Instead of being as a means for self-expression, and therefore privacy is not an issue, my particular explanation is simply familiarity. We use something online regularly, we begin to trust it. Therefore, unless there is a catalyst event like the introduction of Facebook's Timeline, we begin to forget just how much personal information we hemorrhage on a daily basis.

It is also worth noting So.cl terms and conditions. Like so many other social networking services, anything that a user posts on the system is automatically public domain, and additional information may be collected that users are not aware of.

Your So.cl public information will be associated with your Facebook ID, and the data Microsoft shares with other Microsoft products and services and third parties may include this information. When you first use the service you are asked to sign in with this information, and an identifier is created from this data.

According to Microsoft's terms of use:

We may use Web site analytics tools to retrieve information from your browser, including the Web site you came from, the search engine(s) and the keywords you used to find our Service, the pages you view within the Service, your browser add-ons, and your browser's width and height. Additionally, we may collect information such as your IP address, operating version, browser version, locale and language, access times and referring Web site addresses. In some cases, standard computer information may also include hardware ID, which indicates the device manufacturer, device name, and version of your device.

Perhaps it is about time we begin to actually bother reading Terms of Service documents, and reconsider how much information we are willing to allow third-party companies to retain about us.


Editorial standards