Ben Barbersmith

Diaspora Privacy Fail

— Posted on Apr 11, 2011

I was recently able to sign-up to Diaspora thanks to the kindness of some friends on Twitter. I’d been quite excited at the idea of an open-source network, distributed across many machines and administered by anyone who cares to run their own instance (or “pod”, as Diaspora calls them). The pods interconnect, the network grows, and everyone can feel lovingly involved in a real social network that was built from the ground up on open technology.

It’s a bit dead at the moment, and very lacking in features compared to any other service you might care to join, but that’s fine. It’s in alpha, and missing features are to be expected (along with a good helping of bugs). My real issue with the service, and the one that lead me to compose this blog post under such a dismayed title, is that Diaspora is already failing to meet the expectations they set about control over privacy and sharing.

One of the core thrusts of Diaspora is the big bold message on their homepage: “Share what you want, with whom you want.” In accordance with this, they have implemented aspects: contacts must be categorized into different sets of users (which may overlap as required) so that you can choose what you share and only disclose it to the chosen contacts. This, they suggest, allows you to share the 3 nice pictures from your night out with colleagues while your friends can see the full damage (i.e. the other 47 images). It’s a nice idea, and one that appeals to me. It’s simpler than Facebook’s messy privacy model and seems to be built-in from the ground up. Or does it?

One of the first things I tried to do was to hide my birthday from anyone other than close friends and family. It’s a silly thing, but I thought it would be nice to share my real date of birth only with my friends; the rest of the world should see nothing, or perhaps just the year in which I was born. Not a big deal, but a reasonable thing to want to protect given how often date of birth is used in various security mechanisms.

I flipped to my Profile Settings, but couldn’t see how one might restrict certain parts of one’s profile to particular aspects. Neither biography, location, photo, or birthday could be hidden away. It’s not just that I was in the wrong part of the website, which was my first thought: there is no way to control which of your contacts see which parts of your user profile.

This is a very basic starting point. Even Facebook gets this right. Yet Diaspora–the social network that allows you to “share what you want, with whom you want.”–has missed the point entirely.

I know this is almost silly. After all, there’s not much in your profile you’d realistically want to restrict at present. But there are use cases for doing so now, even paranoid security reasons. And what’s more, when you can eventually add information like employment details, religion or sexuality, one might very well want to restrict certain information to close friends or family.

I did post a contracted version of this rant on Diaspora itself, and a friend commented that perhaps I should try to get involved with development. It’s not a particularly satisfactory response. Indeed, the only bad thing about open source technology is that one cannot make disappointed noises without somebody else suggesting they get involved and fix the issue themselves. It’s a poor response when people say it on the Gentoo forums, and it’s a poor response when it gets trotted out on a social network too.

To date, the developers have failed to integrate their most basic premise into the software design. They’ve missed the point from first principles. And, like security models, trying to bolt the right behaviour on to the application later down the line will be a losing battle: you’ll never plug all the holes. I’m not sure any individual hacking on the existing codebase can make a real difference.

Despite all of the above, I will indeed keep a close eye on Diaspora and I’m not going to give up on it. But at present, the disparity between their marketing blurb and their software is almost unpalatable.

Apr 11, 2011 @benbarbersmith