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Facebook Graph Search: Boon for Reporters but at What Cost To Privacy?

VVOJ's Henk van Ess previews Facebook's powerful new Graph Search (still in beta). What could be a boon for investigative reporting also raises major privacy issues.

Henk van Ess, who chairs VVOJ, the Association of Investigative Journalists for The Netherlands and Belgium, previews Facebook's powerful new Graph Search (still in beta). What could be a boon for investigative reporting also raises major privacy issues.

The new Facebook Graph Search, currently in beta and only available to some, is a powerful search engine capable of revealing and uncovering incredibly detailed information about you, your friends and total strangers. It allows you to perform searches like "Which games do Dutch Defense Ministry employees like to play?" (Battlefield and Call of Duty) and "People who like Lance Armstrong, who like steroids and who like fairy tales."

But the new search engine goes beyond the level of providing "funny" lists or surprising your friends with intimate knowledge about them. 

Facebook Graph Search will provide unprecedented detailed personal information as soon as we take our queries one level further and combine searches: "CEOs that like porn" or "Men who like Selena Gomez and FBI and are interested in men who like the bible."

Watch Henk van Ess and Rachel Levy demo Facebook's Graph Search in this video to see this powerful new tool in action:

Contrary to the old Facebook Search — a mediocre, sluggish search engine — Facebook Graph Search allows you to combine more than 100+ personal details about friends and strangers. I'm still counting.

Using Graph Search, we can pinpoint people who meet certain criteria or who have certain interests, as well as certain connections.

Facebook Graph Search

Let's start with a general query like "People from the United States." We can now drill down on 11 relationship details, including sensitive details about our private lives, such as Divorced and Widowed. Drilling down on Muslim, Conservative is easy too:

This way we can generate a list of Conservative Muslims from the United States.

Facebook Graph Search invites you to play around with that list and find additional personal details. Which locations do you want to see that Conservative Muslims from the United States tend to visit, for example?

And which bars (current and former) do American employees of arms manufacturer Glock like to visit? Facebook Graph Search provides the answer within seconds.

Tracing single men who like guns

So if you are targeting specific people who work for a particular organization, with a specific interest, Graph Search helps you to do just that.

Now imagine you are not a decent person. Let's assume you want to find out information about people that could, for example, incriminate them.

Or maybe, you, the criminal mind, wants to check out police detectives and uncover their flaws or vulnerabilities.

In this case, it might come in handy to trace all "single men who work for the government and are detectives." You could subsequently uncover their likes, dislikes, and biography.

The number of possibilities this new Facebook tool provides is endless. As an employer, for example, you could use Facebook Graph Search to find out information about your employees, or about your competitor.

Likewise, we could look for people who work both for Google and Facebook, but probably never told their bosses.

And have you ever wondered who among your colleagues are fans of guns, as shown here at the University of Amsterdam?

Or let's find people who work for Mitt Romney, but who did like Barack Obama. Now we get a list of eight people who like Obama but who work for Romney. Which people work for Obama and Romney at the same time? Half of the entries seem to be fake; the other half seems interesting enough for further research.


Your privacy is at stake

Facebook Graph Search is merely using everything we already, and voluntarily, made public ourselves.

On the other hand — how many of you think about the consequences when liking and linking a page or when writing down your interests or telling your activities? And who in the world looks at what they wrote a year ago?

Facebook enables its users to hide personal details from the Graph Search, but the process is not a simple one, requiring substantially more than just one click. For a quick reference guide on how to protect your privacy, see this manual by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, still a work in progress.

When contacted (via Facebook) to comment on Graph Search and privacy concerns, Facebook representatives said the company does not comment on pre-beta products like Graph Search but did offer a link to the official information about Graph Search, which includes a section on "Graph Search and Privacy."

I think the new Facebook Graph Search will shock some people. It can — and probably will — serve as a mirror to the public. But at what cost?


While much of the information on Facebook is reliable, reporters should always remember that not all results are accurate. There are people who are faking identities, and also the information they provide may not be true. And "likes" can by clicked by accident.

Nevertheless, we can soon find connections, relationships, similarities and correlations that previously were unimaginable. Perhaps worse, we never imagined others would be able to discover so much information about us. Facebook is opening up a gigantic database with billions of personal details.

Dutch-born Henk van Ess currently chairs the VVOJ, the Association of Investigative Journalists for The Netherlands and Belgium. Van Ess teaches internet research & multimedia/cross media at universities and news media in Europe. He is founder of VVOJMedialab and search engines or Facing Facebook. His current projects include crowdsourcing for news media, fact checking of social media and internet research for seasoned reporters.

Parts of this article were originally published on PBS Mediashift and are reproduced with kind permission.

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