Sandboxing Facebook–a middle ground solution for privacy

1294528155051_aFacebook and privacy concerns have gone hand in hand since it became popular. However some of their recent features are making a lot of people want to quit their Friendbooking altogether. I’m not a big fan of Friendbook in general, however I do like to keep in touch with some of the people I’m friends with on there (unlike some, my friends list is well under 150 people, and most of them are actual… friends!) which makes quitting it altogether something I’d rather not do.

There’s other reasons why you might not want to quit Facebook – the inability to see content that people might want to share with you, inability to access applications that use Facebook as their only means of authentication, and so on – in general not having a Friendbook account could end up being more hassle than it’s worth, and so:

Quitting Facebook in 2011 is like quitting MySpace in 2008. It’s the cool thing to do. The difference, however, is that you aren’t going to quit Facebook.

(Of course some people will, but the majority won’t)

So, what about finding a middle ground between ignoring your privacy concerns, and quitting Facebook? What about looking at sandboxing Facebook?

The first and easiest option is simply to only access Facebook via Incognito/Private browsing modes. Of course you’ll have to actually login each time, but that’s the price of privacy. If you want to take things a step further, you could install multiple browsers and completely separate your dodgy daily browsing from your Facebook access. Those are pretty simple steps to take, and the benefits are immediate:

  • Because you have to type in your username and password (shock horror) each time, you might be tempted to access Friendbook a little less regularly, and may actually end up getting more work done
  • You’re also no longer at risk from ‘clickjacking’ attempts, as they all rely on you being lazy logged into Facebook in order to post to your wall automatically.
  • Your all important browsing habits are safe from Zuckerberg’s evil analysis

Not enough? Want more? Well, if you have access to a Virtual Machine then you could take the slightly more extreme option of running Facebook on a browser inside a VM, making things even safer (and even less convenient).

The downside of all of this, is that Facebook still has the ability to do some amount of geolocation against your IP Address and see where you’re logging in from – want to get rid of that? Well why not run up a quick Amazon EC2 instance and access Facebook from there!

The virtual machine and EC2 options are a little extreme for most people, but hey it’s all about having options right?

Finally, Facebook has an API, and there’s plenty of third party applications which have been developed to let you access Facebook without needing to use a web browser. There’s a big assumption there that all of these applications are completely trustworthy, but again, it’s about options.

Okay, so what’s the summary here? For some people, parts of what I’ve written above could be dismissed as “too technical” – but these days if you care about your privacy then you need to make some sort of an investment in a small amount of technical knowledge. It doesn’t need to be much, but it needs to be enough to help you decide what you do and don’t care about. Maybe you decide you don’t care at all, and that’s fine – if you’ve made that decision armed with knowing what you need to know then it’s a perfectly valid decision to make.

In some ways, part of my reason for writing this is to explore my own relationship with Facebook. I enjoy keeping in touch with (some) people, and I think there are a lot of positive things that Facebook has to offer, however I don’t agree with some of the plays they’re making to try and force Facebook into being a vital part of all aspects of the Internet. Oh and I hate Mafia Wars and Farmville. So now that I’ve written this post, I have extra motivation to work out which sandboxing approach works best for me – I’m starting with simply using incognito browsing in Chrome, but I have the feeling that as a developer I could end up writing (or at least looking at writing) some sort of FacebookLite style thing to help me find the mix of privacy and ability to see which of my friends “hate Mondays” and are “so glad it’s Friday” that works for me.

Posted on Thursday, October 6, 2011 10:42 PM |

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