Be careful what you do, Facebook is watching

While searching for a recipe the other day, my wife saw an ad for an Indian website on a non-IndianFacebook
cooking site. She guessed that her online activity was being tracked and ads were being served to her according to her interests or profile. Websites have been doing this for a while, but it’s still a little disturbing to me. Imagine if you went to the mall and a man followed you around, making note of which stores you entered, which items you bought or looked at. Then, as you’re leaving, the man comes to you and says, "Hey, I noticed you went into the bookstore and were looking at Bill O’Reilly’s book. How would you like to buy some pills for mental health?"

If that seems intrusive, just wait till you see what Facebook is doing.

The social-networking service earlier this month began
posting updates about users’ activities on Web sites outside of
Facebook and on commercial pages within Facebook — in some cases,
alongside ads from the companies behind those Web sites or pages.
Facebook is posting users’ photos alongside certain advertisements,
another feature that has alarmed some privacy advocates and users.

For instance, a user who logs on to Facebook might see
an update in a section of the site called the "news feed" noting the
movie a friend rented from an online site, along with a photo of that
friend and a movie-rental ad. [Link]

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not put an update on a friend’s page that says, "Your friend Melvin just rented Girls Gone Wild 3. Wouldn’t you like to watch it too?" Next thing you know, I’d have a dozen guys in my living room. Civic Action, a media-watchdog group,
created a group on the Facebook site yesterday called, "Petition:
Facebook, stop invading my privacy!" By last night, nearly 2,000
Facebook members had joined the group.

The backlash comes as online advertisers experiment
with "behavioral targeting," or sending people ads based on personal
information about them. A common type of behavioral targeting involves
tracking the Web sites an Internet user visits in order to send them
ads that are relevant to their interests.

Facebook, critics argue, takes its advertising beyond
that by collecting specific data about its users’ activities on outside
sites and broadcasting that data to their friends and acquaintances.
Critics of the new feature say the Palo Alto, Calif., company makes it
difficult to opt out of it. [Link]

You can opt out of it, but you have to do it each and every time. The man following you around in the mall won’t just disappear when you tell him to get lost. He’ll keep returning.

Man: "You’re going into Macy’s? May I follow you in there and tell your friends what you’re buying?"

You: "No. Get lost! I’m buying Christmas gifts. I want them to be a surprise."

Man: "You’re going into Victoria’s Secret next? May I follow you in there and tell your friends what you’re buying?"

You: "No. Get lost! I don’t want my friends to buy the same lingerie as mine."

Man: "You’re going into Pet World next? May I follow you in there and tell your friends what you’re buying?"

You: "Sure, come along. I’m going to buy a boxer, so he can bite the butt of the guy who’s following me around."

Photo by basykes

If you enjoyed this piece, you'll love Melvin's novel Bala Takes the Plunge, available in North America through and You can also find it at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. A number of readers have written reviews of the novel. An excerpt of the novel can be read here.

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