Blog exposes the scary side of Facebook Graph Search

23 Jan 2013

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg excitedly unveiled the supposed next big thing for the social network: a search facility that can pinpoint friends and others on Facebook based on their likes, interests, location and relationships. Immediately, there were concerns over what Graph Search could be used for – and one blogger has put them in plain sight.

Actual Facebook Graph Searches is a Tumblr by Tom Scott that he put together just last night. Scott signed up to preview the beta version of Graph Search (which any user can do) and was unsettled by what he discovered once he gained access.

Somewhat of an internet comedian, this isn’t the first time programmer Scott has had a laugh at Facebook’s expense, but this time the jokes also have a serious side.

Searches like “Current employees of Tesco who like horses” will surely get a giggle from anyone aware of the recent horse meat scandal in the UK and Ireland, but then searches like “Current employers of people who like Racism” is less humorous and more concerning.

What Scott’s searches expose is the frivolity of Facebook users, who like things in jest or to be ironic, add friends as family members, make up fake accounts and relationship statuses, and even post things on friends’ timelines just to embarrass them.

Graph Search, however, does not account for nonsense, though, and with it someone could label you as something you might not ‘like’ after all.

And then there are the things that you do like and how Graph Search presents this information – in granular detail. Searching for “Single women who live nearby and who are interested in men and like Getting Drunk” or “Married people who like Prostitutes” has never been easier.

What’s worse still is that the latter term comes with a suggestion of extending the search to these people’s spouses. And then there’s “Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran, Iran”, which can also let you know where these people have worked.

At its most innocuous, Graph Search is nothing more than another string to add to Facebook’s bow. At its most dangerous, it could be a relationship killer, a stalker’s greatest resource, or an enabler of prejudice.

Alarm bells will surely be ringing in people’s heads when they see Scott’s collection of searches, however, his advice is not to freak out but to check your privacy settings and “If it’d be awkward if it was put on a screen in Times Square, don’t put it on Facebook.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.