Facebook's graph search is a creeper's dream

Who wants to search for "single women who live nearby and who are interested in men and like Getting Drunk"?

When Facebook launched its new Graph Search[(https://www.facebook.com/about/graphsearch) service, I was worried about the privacy implications, [arguing that "as the company has learned before, while it recognises a binary 'public/private' divide, most users don't think in such black-and-white terms."

And sure enough, a whole lot of information which users (surely) can't want public is now public. The Tumblr "Actual Facebook Graph Searches" collects, well, Actual Facebook Graph Searches.

So you can use Facebook Graph Search to find “Married people who like Prostitutes" (and then click on one button to get a list of their spouses), "Spouses of married people who like [cheat-on-your-partner dating site] Ashley Madison" or "Family members of people who live in China and like [the very very banned] Falun Gong".

Some of those — particularly the first one — will be "ironic" likes. Saying you like something on Facebook doesn't mean you actually like it, after all. But others won't; and it's hard to imagine the Chinese government particularly caring if someone expressed support for Falun Gong "ironically" or not.

And then there's the creeper potential (try "Single women who live nearby and who are interested in men and like Getting Drunk", for instance).

Part of it might be that the people who make the product have very different standards of privacy than the rest of us. Google's Eric Schmidt has a long-documented history of being, basically, a bit creepy, as does Mark Zuckerberg. And — maybe this is just me — even Facebook's own demonstration of how to use graph search is a little odd. Here's April Dembosky and Richard Waters writing for the Financial Times:

“My wife’s cousin recently moved here from India. She’s single,” he says, as he begins clicking through his Facebook profile. “I love to meddle in my family’s lives.”

Mr Stocky sets parameters for the search of his social network account. He’s looking for friends of his friends who are single men, who live in San Francisco and who are originally from India. A few more clicks and Mr Stocky has a list of romantic prospects for his wife’s cousin, culled from his own personal network.

The question left is whether this will be a storm in a teacup which will eventually rewire our normal expectations of privacy — as with the introduction of the News Feed on Facebook or the first forays into "social advertising" — or something which could damage Facebook, as the "Girls around me" app did with Foursquare and Google's initial attempts to leverage Gmail's network did with Google Buzz.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories