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Internet privacy: Have Facebook and others gone too far?

How much are a handful of personal details worth?

Judging by the way most people give them out, nothing. To them, at least. But to dozens of companies eager to leverage personal information for marketing and advertising, they’re worth millions. And those of us plugging stacks of data into social networks every day might want to start treating them the same way.

Facebook’s most recent privacy fiasco highlights the real monetary value of your privacy details. The company admitted on Monday that a number of major apps, including FarmVille, had been transmitting user IDs to advertising networks, which were in turn able to add the data to their own data piles and sell fleshed-out profiles of you, the consumer. While Facebook booted the offending apps – for a few days – they’re already back, and Facebook has confessed it will be a while before engineers can figure it out.

Why are we still using Facebook, again?

The user ID affair is just the latest in a cascading string of privacy issues that have dogged Facebook as its popularity snowballs, its engineers struggle to keep up, and its owners struggle to monetize. In February, bad code routed hundreds of private messages into the wrong inboxes. In March, a server hiccup leaked private e-mail addresses to the world. In May, a glitch exposed account information, including private chats.

And those are just the unintentional privacy flubs. Let’s not forget all the fiddling Facebook has done with privacy controls that made it near-impossible for average users to figure out who could see what.

The problem here: Nobody really cares. While users bemoan Facebook’s recurring privacy issues and changes that seem to only bring on more spam and uninvited features, they continue to send a stampede of traffic to Facebook every day, to the point that it has officially surpassed Google as the most popular property on the Web. US Internet users spend 10 percent of their surfing time – 41.1 million minutes – devouring information on Facebook.

Essentially, we continue to pour forth even more information into Facebook while the company continues to get a monthly black eye for accidentally spilling it. Is it any wonder it’s still happening?

Privacy as a commodity

If we really expect Facebook to start treating our private details seriously, we need to start treating them like the money they represent to potential advertisers, who circle Facebook for scraps of info like dogs around the dinner table.

What would you do if your bank divulged a list of accounts with substantial savings, including yours, to real estate agents who suddenly began to call with “exciting opportunities”? If your credit card company accidentally revealed a day-by-day breakdown of your spending to retailers? If your bank revealed your salary to every one of your friends?

Unmitigated rage, obscenity filled phone calls, and dumping the institutions in question, probably. And hence the reason it will never happen.

While the business of banking and the business of social networks vary substantially, all these institutions manage to carefully juggle your private information – while sharing it with select parties that need to be in the know – without spilling the beans. It’s possible, but unless we demand it from Facebook, the company doesn’t have much of an incentive to throw the resources at it that it requires.

Vote with your confidence… or lack thereof

I’m not suggesting you dump Facebook forever, but if you actually have concerns over Facebook’s handling of your private information, put your anxious little fingers to rest and stop feeding it in. Stop uploading gigabytes of photos you might not want everyone to see. Stop using its chat for private conversations you wouldn’t want revealed. Stop filling in your home address and phone number.

I’ve implemented a few of these measures myself, and they’re far from life changing. I cut off Facebook from my personal photos months ago when I realized it didn’t have the quality I wanted, or the means to properly conceal them from prying eyes. Picasa works better for me. I never made spur-of-the-moment status updates because I never quite understood who would be able to read them. And I stripped out my home address just as I was writing this because I realized I had absolutely no good reason to put there when I did two years ago. Anyone who wants to murder me in my sleep can private message me first to inquire about it, thanks.

You wouldn’t confide your deepest secrets to a guy who had a habit of sleep walking and shouting them out all over town, so stop whispering them to Mark Zuckerberg. Until he can learn to keep his mouth shut.