If you think Facebook privacy is so bad, the open Web is worse

It seems like anyone who wants to be anybody is whacking Facebook over its loose -- or rather loosening -- privacy policies. Earlier this month, with disregard to the grammer momma taught me, I asked: "Which is Eviler? Apple, Facebook or Google?" Even I whacked CEO Mark Zuckerberg aside the head about Facebook privacy.  As bad as pundits make out Facebook privacy to be, people can, and do, reveal plenty of information on the Web, too. Which place do they reveal more? I set out to find out in a non-scientific experiment, looking for publicly available information about one of my sisters.

I got to rethinking Facebook privacy over the weekend, after reading New York Times post "World's Largest Social Network: The Open Web" by Randall Stross. "The links on the trillion Web addresses found by Google, and within the billions of Tweets that have followed, form an incomparably vast, truly worldwide, web of recommendations, supplied by fellow humans," Stross writes. "In this sense, the open Web has a strong claim to being more 'social' than does Facebook."

I'll go further: Because of search engines' effectiveness and how many sites allow Bing-, Google- or rival-bot crawling, many people already expose lots of information -- and often without knowing. So I decided to compare Facebook to the Web. Just how much information is exposed?

Information Exposed by the Web

One of my sisters is a missionary in Central America. She is an experienced computer user -- actually works parttime for an IT support company -- keeps a blog and uses Facebook. My quest: Could I easily and quickly find as much information about her on the Web as she reveals on Facebook? I chose this sister because missionary work takes her out of the mainstream.

I Googled her name, which pulled up as top hit: the results from a New York state bike race from the early 2000s -- and a walking race from a few years earlier later on the first page. Additional race information from other years suggested that she participates in an annual event. So there is one day of the year, where I know where she will be. I then searched for her name and missionary country, finding a blog revealing her full name, confirming her husband's name (from the earlier search) and providing additional personal information and photos, which helped to identify her and her husband as the searches continued. The initial search also led to a Facebook athletic group.

Bing did better with her name, by pulling up as first hit a service called "My Life." Without registering for "My Life," I got her age, middle name and permanent US address. Another service, "ZoomInfo," revealed where she works (as corroborated by information revealed by other searches). Other race results confirmed the US address as being valid. But Bing fumbled her name and missionary country search, leading to no usable results in the first five pages.

I circled back to my sister's blog, and clicked through links to three Christian ministries -- one of them in Central America. That missionary group page had a pastor's blog that included photos of my sister (matching the likeness on her blog) and identifying her role working for the ministry as recently as 2008. Another link revealed that she is affiliated with all three ministries, provided an e-mail address and exposed her telephone number, as contained in a recent newsletter.

So, without ever using Facebook, and following the trail of search breadcrumbs, I got her full name, name of her husband, permanent US address, current location (but not physical address) in Central America, past (or possibly current) employer, names of three ministries she currently works with in Central America, e-mail address and phone number. I also identified several annual races she participates in, one which later in the search turned out to be affiliated with one of the ministries, and a Facebook group she belongs to. All of this took about 45 minutes using Bing and Google.

Even More From Facebook

What does my sister reveal on Facebook? OMG! Privacy? What is privacy? I set up a fake Facebook account (which should cancel out as I didn't verify the e-mail) and immediately searched for my sister. Since the fake account had no friends, I observed just how much personal information she  exposes. Available to any Facebook account holder is a treasure trove of personal information. "[Sister's name] only shares some of her profile information with everyone," according to her profile page. Some?

Publicly available on her profile page: Name, two of her children's names, mother's name, sisters' names, her location in Central America, list of nearly 250 friends and Wall post galore. A fan page confirmes her place of parttime employment and the previously identified athletic group fan page. Wall posts reveal that she is attending a conference and where and identifies where her husband will be next month. So on and so on. My Facebook data mining took about 5 minutes. My sister has some control over what information is disclosed on Facebook. Most of the information I found in Web searches came from someone else. She really has no control over that at all.

What Facebook didn't expose, the Web searches provided. My sister's Facebook profile picture is a childhood photo, but her blog and the pastor's blog have current pics. The missionary site disclosed my sister's e-mail address and phone number. My sister tends to be guarded about her personal data, or so she thinks. For someone less guarded, I should have easily gotten more personally identifiable information -- even from just a Web search. I presume that like many Facebook users, my sister extends privileges to friends of friends. I could have gotten even more information had I friended one of her friends (Oh I was tempted!).

I'll have to ring my sister and explain that all her Wall posts are public. Perhaps because of something in my settings (I should check), I am not listed with my other siblings as being related to her. Then, again, maybe I'm disowned -- or will be after she reads this post. Perhaps my sister will forgive me, because I respected her privacy enough not to disclose her name. Perhaps. My public Facebook profile is pretty barebones right now, and nowhere do I see any public Wall posts that would reveal my sister's identity. Facebook friends probably could ferret out her name, though.

[Update 12:07 pm: Someone tweeted about Profile Watch. I ran my suster's profile, which scored 8 out of 10. Uh-oh, meaning she doesn't reveal lots of information. Now how can that be? More surprising: Mine is a five. Facebook CEO Zuckerberg: 1.6.]

So my question for you: Does Facebook reveal too much information? Hell, do Bing and Google? One way to answer: Conduct an exercise similar to mine and see how much information you can find out fast about a relative -- or even yourself -- through Web search and Facebook. Please answer the questions in comments.

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