Sep 222012
 September 22, 2012  Posted by  Business

Back on July 5, Aliette de Bodard tweeted, “WTF, FB greets me with a picture of one of my friends and asks me “is this your friend’s real name”? Like I’m going to denounce them…” Her tweet was re-tweeted by only one person and got only one response.  On July 6, however, Heise reported on Facebook’s attempt to get information on whether its users were really using their real names or pseudonyms.  Apart from Heise, a handful of other sites also mentioned this latest development, but only one was in English, which may help explain why the story really didn’t get any traction.

Fast-forward a few months, and when “dǝǝɥƆ Deefy” tweeted, “Facebook wants to know if your friends’ names are real. Are you going to be the snitch?” it gets over 800 re-tweets and its own hashtag – #snitchgate.

So Facebook has been doing this since the beginning of July, but it seemingly flew under privacy advocates’ radar until September 19.  In a statement to AllFacebook, Facebook explains:

We are always looking to gauge how people use Facebook and represent themselves to better design our product and systems. We are showing people information that their friends have made available to them, and we indicate to the person taking the survey that their response will be anonymous to ensure them that we are not sharing their data with anyone and only looking to understand the results in an aggregate sense. Additionally, it is important to understand that we will not be using this data for enforcement actions.

But there’s no way out of the survey pop-up except to click “I don’t want to answer:”

Screenshot or illustration by @chapeaudefee
Of course, Facebook is a company and not the government, so they can decide that their Terms of Service requires real names – even if they don’t attempt to justify it by saying the real names policy is for safety purposes.  And they can take steps to find out whether most users are complying with those terms.  There’s nothing seemingly illegal or unethical about what Facebook is doing.  It’s just plain creepy.  And it may create distrust among users who fear they will be “outed.” How social is that?

But more than creepy, it also reminds us that while Facebook offers its users some privacy settings and controls, its business model is based on real names and making as much information about users as public as possible so that advertisers can target advertising.  Using a pseudonym on Facebook still permits targeted advertising based on content, but how much richer would the data mining – and advertising revenues for Facebook – be if the Facebook account can be linked to Gmail or other accounts?

So what should a good friend do when confronted by the screen?  Do you say “yes?” (even if it’s not the real name) or do you answer “I don’t want to answer?”  Hopefully, you won’t answer “no.”

As for me, I’ll never encounter that survey, because I’ve never used Facebook and never understood why anyone who cares about their privacy would use it. But that’s just me. YMMV.

  2 Responses to “Is #Snitchgate much ado about nothing?”

  1. I contacted @chapeaudefee directly about the screenshot snippet that appears to be at the center of #snitchgate, and received the following response that can be read at the following Twitter URL:

  2. Thanks, Keith. I had found screenshots from July in German publications that are consistent with the text of what @chapeaudefee posted, as well as another English-language post from three months ago that quoted the screen so I’m pretty confident the content is correct and it seems more likely to be a screenshot than an illustration, but I’ve edited the post to reflect the latter possibility.

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