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5/18/2012
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Oh, Facebook, Why Can't I Quit You?

Facebook sells your addiction to advertisers, hoping to make a buck off your personal information. Will you wake up in time to kick the habit, or do you "like" the security risks of blurring the line between personal and professional?

Spending time on social media is the modern day cigarette habit. But if you are addicted, you're not alone. There are one billion people with the same habit, regularly feeding Facebook with the most intimate information about themselves.

As the world watches Facebook go public today, it's important to understand that Facebook is a business and must make money to live up to its $100 billion valuation. At the center of this is you, the user. Behind the nicely designed Facebook pages is an intelligent algorithm that targets ads to get you to buy stuff. CBS reports that Facebook makes 80% of its revenue from serving up ads. This is about $4.34 per user.

Every status update, every photo, every "like"--every action you take on Facebook becomes valuable to it. Everything you do is tracked online, so advertisers can predict what they should sell you. As a Facebook user, you are its product.


Facebook's all-night hackathon. Source: Jez Burrows, a product designer at Facebook.

Of course, Facebook's advertising platform might not be all that it is cracked up to be. GM pulled its $10 million ad campaign. There have been reports that 44% of Facebook of users don't click on ads. But don't feel too sorry for Facebook.

Facebook has become adept at mapping the reward centers of our brains, manipulating us to create online worlds even when those activities might not be in our best interests. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check Facebook to see if I've gotten any messages and see if any of my friends have posted something to their walls. The activity stream suggests that they, too, have gotten into the habit of checking Facebook in the morning. Why? Checking Facebook brings a quick dose of satisfaction if people "like" your photo or comment.

The more data you feed it, the more Facebook knows about you. A recent New York Times article revealed that Target knew a teen was pregnant before her father did. Of course, Facebook is not the only problem. Every big company can track your information. "Google knows more about my interests than my wife does," computer security specialist Bruce Schneier said. "That is a little bit creepy." He cracked, "Now tell me about your sex life," to illustrate the intimacy of some information.

AT&T and Apple know a lot about you, too. "In some ways, the Web permeates all our lives. These companies are becoming powerful because of where they sit. If you have a Kindle, all of your browsing goes through Amazon," Schneier said.

But there are specific issues with Facebook that users should be aware of. Privacy expert Ashkan Soltani sympathizes with addicted Facebook users. "Facebook is essentially Brokeback Mountain. Everyone thinks 'Why can't I quit you?'" But he is concerned about several security loopholes Facebook opens up for companies. One is the accidental disclosure of corporate information. "This could simply be posting a photo with sensitive product or trade secret info. We've seen this happen to military troops, who inadvertently disclose info. So it's not surprising that 'average joe employee' accidentally reveals a new product launch," he said.

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