If it feels more and more like Big Brother is watching, then you’re right. Most people are coming to realize that their posts on Facebook aren’t actually private, no matter how tightly they try to button up their privacy settings. However, what about those posts you type and then, for one reason or another, decide not to actually post? It turns out that Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) is watching those too.
Facebook’s computer code
Jennifer Golbeck of Slate reports that Facebook actually uses a code which still tracks what users type, even if they don’t click the “Post” button. According to Golbeck’s post, Facebook calls these things “self-censorship,” and she refers to a paper written by an intern and a data scientist at the social network. They studied the self-censorship behavior of Facebook users, looking at data from 5 million users of Facebook. It tells us not just about the way people censor what they post, but also how Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) keeps track of these thoughts we decided to keep private after all.
According to the paper, Facebook sends a string of code to users’ browser. That data analyzes what they typed, even if it isn’t posted. Then the code sends metadata back to Facebook.
Facebook’s practices are similar to others, but…
What Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB)’s code does is apparently similar to what other sites’ codes do. For example, Gmail saves what is typed into messages as the user types. This is meant as a safety measure to help the user keep from accidentally exiting out of the browser and losing what they have typed. The type of technology Facebook uses to analyze users’ self-censored posts is apparently very similar to this.
One thing that isn’t clear, however, is how this data is covered under Facebook’s privacy practices. The company doesn’t say in its policies that it collects what users type but don’t share. The wording is a little shady here, since it says the social network collects data whenever users “view or otherwise interact with things.” Of course typing and not sharing is a sort of interaction, but most people probably don’t even think that what they type and don’t share is actually being recorded and monitored by Facebook.
How far is Facebook going?
The article suggests that Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) isn’t monitoring the text that is actually typed and then erased. Instead, the social network is supposedly just monitoring the fact that someone self-censored. However, as Slate notes, it is possible for the social network to actually collect the text that is typed in, even if it isn’t shared.
The paper the author references does indicate that Facebook wants to more fully understand why people censor what they post, which would suggest that the social network is interested in reading the text of these non-posts. In addition, the paper indicates that whenever someone decides to censor their thoughts, Facebook loses value. As a result, the social network is apparently aiming to reduce self-censorship.
But is this a good goal or not? Certainly some of the things that don’t get posted probably shouldn’t. And the implications for what this technology could be used for are broad. The National Security Agency has been in hot water for its monitoring of pretty much everyone it possibly can, and this would be just another way Big Brother is watching over us. So even if Facebook isn’t doing anything with un-posted text now, be warned that there’s a very real chance the company or even the government will in the future.