Facebook’s Graph Search gets personal

As the slow roll-out of Facebook’s Graph Search continues, more people are getting a chance to experience this powerful new tool. Graph Search is essentially an internal search engine, tapping into the vast data base of personal information, photos and interests that have been posted by Facebook users.

If you take the Graph Search tour, you get an immediate idea of the potential. Want to know restaurants in San Francisco that your friends have been to? No problem. How about movies that friends of friends have ‘liked’? Easy. Frame your search query in the right way – and Facebook’s predictive text feature gives you plenty of help in this department – and Facebook will return the precise information that you are looking for.

And Graph Search doesn’t limit itself to just friends. You can also search for information on Facebook members who aren’t friends, just so long as those members have made that information publicly available. For example, say you want team up with some local hikers. A quick search of ‘People interested in Hiking who live near [your home town]’ will quickly give you details of Facebook members who share your love of the outdoors.

Now, on the face of it, this shouldn’t be a problem. After all, we are talking about information that would normally be available to you anyway, either because you’re a friend, a friend of a friend, or because the Facebook member has made that information publicly available. But the difference here is that while many Facebook members’ pages are public, they still have a certain expectation of privacy, or at least an expectation that their personal information will not be searchable. Instead, that information is now available to anyone.

Last month, British tech blogger Tom Scott published a series of searches he undertook once Graph Search became available on his Facebook page. His purpose was just to poke some fun at Facebook but he ended up illustrating how embarrassing – and, in some cases, how hazardous – this new search tool could be. There have also been concerns over how Graph Search could be used to exploit children. To its credit, Facebook has been proactive in this area, layering on some additional controls for teenage users and restricting data sharing to friends or friends of friends who are also under the age of 18.

For the rest of us, it’s a question of once again evaluating exactly how we use Facebook and thinking twice – make that three times – before we post. In a previous article, we discussed some of the measures you can take to prepare for Graph Search. These are in addition to the privacy measures that should already be in place.

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