Disclaimer: The opinions of the columnists are their own and not necessarily those of their employer.
Kenneth F. Belva

Losing Friends on Facebook: A Privacy Story

Reconnecting with past friends and acquaintances, to me, is the primary value of Facebook. It is a simple way to establish ties to people you knew but lost touch with over the years. It’s a common experience on Facebook to befriend past best friends, people you’ve dated, and high school friends who were in your social circle. I’m not an exception in this case: I’ve experienced all of this including befriending business acquaintances, past co-workers and people on the other side of the globe (who I do not know) wanting to befriend me due to Information Security.

Normally I do not publish personal stories and experiences, even on Facebook. So, this article is an exception. For those readers who are not familiar with Facebook, an important component to this story is the Facebook News Feed. When one logs into Facebook, a Facebook member is displayed a page that lists all the events that one’s friends have published about themselves and other Facebook events that relate to them. For example, if one of my friends comments on a photograph of themselves or others, I see it. If one of my friends becomes friends with someone else, that will show up in my feed as well. Other things that may pop-up in one’s feed include profile changes: dating status (single, married), date of birth, employment, etc. These settings may be controlled via Facebook’s privacy settings, but people rarely do.

A few months ago I befriended a woman with whom I attended elementary school through high school. We were both in the same social circles and had mutual friends, even though we weren’t best of friends. When we befriended each other on Facebook, I checked out her profile and that was that: standard operating procedure. No real further interest there… until what she was posting on Facebook started arriving in my News Feed.

She began to write personal jokes, stories and various details to her sister and her friends about her personal life. This was entertainment: the stripper they hired for a party, the drama when her dog went to the vet hospital, jokingly negative comments about her sister’s child, etc. I didn’t search this stuff out: when it’s delivered to your homepage one has a tendency to read it!

Fast forward a few months. Two weeks ago I find myself on a random blind date. She’s a few years younger than me and, coincidentally, it turns out that she’s good friends with the younger sister of my Facebook friend above! Dang! In the course of dinner, a few drinks and the “who do you know” conversation, I happened mentioned my date’s friend’s child’s name whom I read about so much on Facebook but never met in person. Then my date brings up a big party at which she and the two sisters were present. Low and behold, I put two and two together and it’s the party with the stripper! I just can’t make this stuff up! Although I withheld the fact that I knew about the stripper, I think she realized there was something that I knew but wasn’t saying. Anyway, the date ended and we went our separate ways. My date must have told her friend about our conversations: a few days later, out of the blue, my Facebook friend above deletes the online link representing our friendship.

I completely understand and empathize with why she did it. When I first started blogging, I kept a personal blog in addition to the security one. Since I was well aware of the privacy issues surrounding online self-publishing, I decided to only write about things that I wouldn’t mind being public or already were public. I was still unaware of what it would be like to have this information come back to me.

At an information security networking dinner a few years ago, someone approached me and asked about a large book donation I made to my undergraduate College. It was a direct reference to my blog post. While the donation was not something of a private, personal nature, it was still unnerving. The donation was not a topic that naturally arose from between myself and this individual. I was stunned: people were searching and reading about me! For the same reason I took my personal blog offline, I can understand why I was removed from being her friend. And, I don’t blame her.

Facebook’s privacy setting are by default open. The site encourages information sharing. One just really needs to be careful about with whom one is sharing those personal stories. If one uses a social networking tool, learn the site’s privacy settings (including Facebook/MySpace/etc. applications!). Do not post anything that one would not want everyone else in the world to read. After all, data leaks! It makes its way into unexpected areas. In addition, remember: if you publish it, someone will read it and not necessarily the people you intend.

While it’s unfortunate that someone with whom I grew up decided to remove me from her circle of online friends, I should not be her biggest concern. It’s been about 15 years since I last saw her. I have my own group of friends and do not keep in touch with any of her’s. And, although I’m always interested to hear what my friends are doing, without any disrespect, I’m not abundantly interested in her life because I have my own to live. If I were her, though, my concerns would lie elsewhere: those entertaining stories were popping up on the Facebook Feeds of her coworkers too.

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