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Like thousands of other Facebook users, Jason Kaufman was "alarmed" a few weeks ago when he read that Facebook had subtly altered the text of its Terms of Use in ways that seemed to give its users less privacy protection.

What's notable about Kaufman's alarm is that he's one of the people who actually has access to Facebook users' private data.

Kaufman, a research fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is working on an ongoing project that studies a discrete set of Facebook users' sociality and pop cultural preferences -- using personal data gleaned from college students' profiles provided by Facebook.

"As you can imagine, there's an incredible amount of interesting information about people in their Facebook profiles," Kaufman says. "And so starting a few years ago, we picked a cohort of college students at one American college, and with Facebook's permission" -- and also in accordance with Harvard's Committee on the Use of Human Subjects -- "we downloaded information from one college class's Facebook pages.

"The most interesting information to me, in addition to knowing who's friends with whom, is people's self-professed favorite movies and books," he explains. "So we've been trying to study the dynamics of taste as they play out in friendships. The people who like obscure emo bands: are they also on the fringe of their college's social scene? The people who like popular rock and roll or movies, are they also popular? Does liking things make it more likely for you to be friends with people who share your tastes?"

Facebook users have been notably vocal about their privacy concerns -- remember the backlash over Beacon? -- and the recent blow-up over the change in the site's contract produced an outpouring of suspicion, recrimination, and protest. And that eruption came not over a revelation about Facebook releasing user data, but instead over an easily overlooked snippet of legalese that merely hinted the possibility of Facebook retaining information about a user in perpetuity. The deleted language had previously ensured that Facebook's little-understood claim to "irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license" to "use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works, and distribute" users' content would expire once a member deleted his or her account. But with a single clause's excision, it appeared Facebook was now removing the loophole that allowed users to fully delete their accounts. By late February, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was attempting to reassure users that "on Facebook, people own and control their information."

"In reality," Zuckerberg wrote, "we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want. The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work. Our goal is to build great products and to communicate clearly to help people share more information in this trusted environment."

Two days later, under increasing pressure from Facebook users and a media firestorm, the company reinstated its previous Terms of Use agreement.

As Facebook users debate whether they can trust the company, the conversation has been framed as a philosophical issue, a what-if scenario. But what neither side seems to realize is someone may, right now, be poking, prodding, and hypothesizing about your Super Wall scrawls and "25 Things" without your knowledge.

Kaufman, writing February 17 on his blog, expressed concern over the change in the Terms of Use: "You can never ask them [Facebook] to forfeit the right to the data you've voluntarily put on their servers? (Then again, I have no idea how many other similar 'lifetime' agreements I am party to on the Internet. Do you??)"

Speaking later that week in an interview with the Boston Phoenix, Kaufman said he was impressed by Facebook's quick response to users' concerns about their Terms of Use. "It's been similar to my experience dealing with them personally on the research end of things: They're very concerned about doing the right thing, about protecting their users."

But, Kaufman says he "can't be very explicit" about the safeguards put in place to protect users' data in his study, claiming that it's "a sensitive process between Facebook and researchers, the details of the arrangement." The gist of it is that all data is converted in "into machine-readable ciphered form" -- so that it's impossible, he says, to tell who his subjects actually are.

"What I can tell you," he says, "is that our primary concern is taking any data that we collect and anonymizing it in such a way that no one, including ourselves, could turn around and then gain access to private information about individuals who use Facebook."

The relationship between Facebook, its users, and third parties is a tricky one that in many ways is still being sorted out, says Kaufman. "What we're seeing is this future of social networking being defined as we go along. Trying to strike a balance between what users find tolerable and what business providers find profitable. Facebook doesn't want to stay in business just to make it easy for all of us to talk to one another."

Facebook still plans to change their Terms of Use; they're just not sure how. The good news is that when they do, many, many pairs of eyes will be reading the fine print and ready to hold them accountable if they don't like what they see.

"They've retracted for now. But they've also made it clear that they want to forge some kind of new agreement about what data they hold and for how long. We'll have to see how on top of it users are. But there's so much transparency that it's hard to believe they'll get away with a lot."

This story originally appeared in The Boston Phoenix.

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