Searching for privacy with Facebook's graph search

Local 6 investigates possible privacy pitfalls with Facebook's newest tool


ORLANDO, Fla. – If you've logged onto Facebook in the last few months, you may have noticed an alert that something called graph search is on its way.

Facebook will roll out its new search tool similar to the way it introduced timeline and other changes to the social network: a small number of users will have access to graph search before it is made available to every Facebook user.

[WEB EXTRA: Facebook privacy tutorial]

For most people on Facebook, the only way to find someone is if you know their name, email address or phone number. But with graph search, users are able to type in characteristics like the name of a school, workplace or church to try to locate a profile.

By typing in the names of local high schools along with graduation years, Local 6 social media producer Savannah Herring was able to pull up hundreds of profiles of teenage girls that appeared to be as young as 14 or 15.

Herring has access to graph search because she was on a waiting list for the new product when it was launched in December.

"Any time Facebook rolls out something new, like ‘Graph Search,' it is important to review your privacy settings. What you thought was fine for your friends to see, may now be seen by total strangers," said Herring.

The girls located through graph search posted their workplaces, afterschool activities and, in some instances, even checked in at their homes and their beds.

"It's easy for that individual to type in any accumulation of words and find a whole grouping of kids in that age limit," said Jeffrey Duncan, the head of Cyber Tech Crime at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Orlando. 

Duncan said check-ins on Facebook are the easiest way to give a potential predator the address of a child, but even photographs have electronic footprints with location information. 

"If you can get a photograph there are several purchase programs out there, they can be as cheap as $10 that an individual can load that program or load that picture into," he said.

Most photographs on Facebook can be set so that only friends can view them, however cover photos are the users timelines are always viewed as public.  Herring said that many experts recommend to use a picture that does not depict yourself or your children since anyone can view it.

However, Facebook said that minors have additional privacy protections that adult users do not have.

"Minors on Facebook, anyone who identifies himself between 13 and 17, their maximum sharing experience on Facebook is friends of friends," said Nicky Jackson-Colaco, the policy manager who works on privacy for the site.

Jackson-Colaco said that even before graph search was developed, no minor could be seen by a user that did not share at least one mutual friend with that minor.

However, using graph search Herring was able to view the profiles of hundreds of local teenagers using graph search just by typing in small characteristics.  None of these teens shared mutual friends with her.

To demonstrate the capabilities even further, she used an iPad and searched the names of a high school in eastern Pennsylvania where two vacationing teens claimed they attended.

While standing along Park Avenue in Winter Park, she was able to display dozens of profile pages of classmates and friends of the teen girls.

"That girl is in middle school," said Julie Crossin, who was in Central Florida visiting her grandmother last week.

Crossin said she identifies herself as an 18-year-old on Facebook, despite the fact the high school freshman is only 15.

"We told them not to be 100 percent honest on there.  We did not want all their information on there," said Virginia Crossin, Julia's mother. 

The Crossins were surprised to find out that had Julia or any of the girls Herring located using graph search put in their actual birthdates,  they would have had built in privacy controls to prevent a complete stranger from being able to view the profiles.

Facebook emphasized the importance of users being truthful about their age when using the site.

"What we've done with graph search is something more restrictive than anything we've ever done in the past, and we've said not only is it going to be a friend's of friend's experience but for any queries that can identify a minor by their age or by their location, those will only show to people who are either their friends or confirmed friend's of friends," said Jackson- Colaco.

According to the FDLE, many minors and adult users of Facebook are not educated enough on the tools available to limit information that they do not intend to share with a massive audience.

Using graph search while having lunch, Herring was able to locate all of the employees at a popular Park Avenue restaurant who listed their place of employment on the social network.

Within a few minutes, she found the photographs and information for a woman who appeared to be the hostess at Bospohorous Turkish restaurant.

"I thought I was in trouble," said Nona Tyler, the graduate student and hostess at the restaurant.

Tyler was shocked when Local 6's Lauren Rowe showed her the iPad containing her Facebook profiles and photos.

"I guess if it was for the wrong intention it would be slightly concerning," she said. "Then again, I put it out there."

It's why Duncan and Herring recommend that everyone take a close look and be in control of their privacy settings. 

"Graph Search is an easy way to search an index of every piece of data on Facebook," said Herring. "That means, you now have to consider who will be able to see any data that relates to you, right down to where you work or where you went to school."

For minors that are registered as adults, it is as simple as going to the about section of their profiles and entering the correct birthdates. By having a birthdate as a minor, the audience who can view your information is automatically limited.

Facebook said they require users to contact them if they are attempting to change a birthdate.  That can be easily done through a contact link that appears on the site while changing a birthdate.

Local 6's Lauren Rowe has a video tutorial with Herring to walk users through the various aspects of Facebook privacy settings-view it here.