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Is Facebook Timeline a Step Too Far For Privacy?

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Facebook finally launched their new Timeline feature to the world last month. Much attention has focused on the improved look and feel of the user interface, particularly the large cover photo that now dominates a Facebook profile.

But much less attention has been paid to the more interesting aspect of the Timeline - the ability to move back in time to any point and see what the user was doing at that time.

In effect, Facebook has created an open diary because you can go back in time on your own or a friend's profile to see what was posted on the system last year - or even on a specific date. And Facebook is encouraging users to add 'life events' that took place before Facebook was even created, so the timeline will end up as a rich biography documenting your entire life from cradle to grave.

This is an interesting development, not least for those interested in privacy. It used to be that you updated your Facebook status and as the update dropped off the screen - because new ones replaced it - that would then be lost forever. Now users can move back and forth in time examining every little post you made.

Of course it is possible to update your privacy settings to prevent this, but most users still rely on the default privacy settings. I have personally seen several people in my own social networks say that controlling the privacy settings on Facebook has now become so complex, they would rather just stop using it. Privacy has been a constant issue for Facebook in the past couple of years, but with the Timeline it could be that they are pushing beyond what users enjoy.

Recruiters have often warned avid social networkers about the danger that they will arrive at a job interview only to find the interviewer has found some compromising photos online. But with the ability to move back and forth in time scanning the entire life history of a person, this danger just became a whole lot more real.

But everyone has a different view on what is private and what is not. I was once disparaged by many in my family for posting a video on YouTube of my aunt at her birthday party attempting to dance like Michael Jackson. It was funny, it was a party, and everyone had cameras, but to many in the family I had crossed a line by posting the video in a public place.

I talked to a friend over Christmas who had been upset because photos from his wedding went on Facebook - direct from mobile phones - before he had released the official ones from the wedding photographer. As if it is now possible to prevent people uploading images direct from smartphones. I recently attended the wedding of a Canadian friend in Brazil and her family back home were absolutely loving the fact that I was posting so many photos online in realtime direct from the wedding.

Facebook has over 800m active users now, but their Achilles' heel remains user privacy. Balancing how much to reveal online to make the social networking experience useful with the need to retain some privacy remains a challenge. With the Timeline they have taken a large step forward and I expect most users will follow willingly, but it could be a step too far for a few.