Friday, December 18, 2009

Privacy Coalition Urges FTC to Investigate Facebook over New Privacy Options

As I have written here in the past, with the explosion in popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, the ability to protect ones personal privacy has become increasingly challenging.

It goes without saying that tools like Facebook reveal a considerable amount of information about a user's lifestyle, interests, and goals. Depending on the user's settings, co-workers, employers, and certain family members could have access to information about the user that may be better left unknown. Recent Facebook flaps highlights growing concerns about the increasingly sophisticated technologies used to track online activities in an effort to more precisely target advertising.

Recent Facebook flaps highlights growing concerns about the increasingly sophisticated technologies used to track online activities in an effort to more precisely target advertising. What has also become apparent is that these social networking sites have not exactly been forthcoming about how much user information they harvest, share, and with whom.

However, in recent months users have been becoming more and more conscious of privacy concerns, as Facebook has been criticized for not allowing people to permanently delete their accounts and personal information from the site as well as their use of "Beacon" (no longer in use) - a technology that tracks user's online purchases and informs their friends.

The controversy raised by Facebook's use of the Beacon technology - and the subsequent victory of privacy advocates - has helped ignite a larger debate regarding the largely hidden and growing problem of online consumer-tracking and information-sharing.

This debate has now come to a head, again, with Facebook's response last week to pressure about its privacy practices, including an ACLU petition signed by over 43,000 concerned Internet users. Facebook released a new privacy policy, modified its profile and publication privacy controls, and rolled out a "Transition Tool" to guide all 350 million Facebook users through the process of choosing new privacy settings.

As the ACLU's Nicole Ozer detailed last week on the California Progress Report, there are a whole lot of problems with the new policy, just as there was with the old. Nicole wrote:

We have three primary privacy concerns with the new system:

1. There's more "publicly available information" that you can't control: Before the recent changes, you had the option of exposing only a "limited" profile, consisting of as little as your name and networks, to other Facebook users—and nothing at all to Internet users at large. Now your profile picture, current city, friends list, gender, and fan pages are "publicly available information," which means you have no way to prevent any other Facebook user from viewing this information on your profile, and you can only prevent Internet users from viewing this information by disabling search entirely (which you can't do through the Transition Tool).

2.Facebook is "recommending" that you loosen your privacy settings: For most users, including those who have never changed their Facebook privacy settings, the recommended settings make information less protected and more widely available than the previous default settings. For example, as of last Friday, sensitive information like relationship status and gender preference was available only to your friends by default; now Facebook encourages users to make this information available to "everyone!"

3. The "Transition Tool" does not allow most users to strengthen privacy settings: Facebook's Transition Tool gives you only two choices: keep your current settings or switch to Facebook's recommendations. And since Facebook's recommendations are less private than the previous default settings, most users have to click through to another page of privacy controls in order to strengthen their settings.

But, the negative response to Facebook's new privacy policy has just been turned up a notch...a real big notch. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) called upon the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook's recent changes to its users' privacy options.

The EPIC complaint is supported by the Center for Digital Democracy, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and seven other advocacy organizations, and takes issue with Facebook's now "public" treatment of such data as users' names, genders, cities, and profile photos.

In other words, by default, this information is now disclosed to search engines as well as to third-party Facebook applications. The concern revolves around how this information could be used against a user's interests.

EPIC's complaint states:Facebook’s changes to users’ privacy settings disclose personal information to the public that was previously restricted [and] disclose personal information to third parties that was previously not available. These changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook’s own representations.”

Sci-Tech Reports:

Facebook recently rolled out a new privacy protocol that it promoted as giving users more control over privacy settings. With the controls, users can decide whether to make certain aspects of their Facebook profiles publicly available on the Internet, or only available to friends...But the controls were limited, and certain elements, such as the friends list, were made public by default. As originally released, users had no way to change that setting. After a swell of criticism, Facebook allowed users to make their friends list private. Another complaint was that too much information was made public by default.


Specifically, EPIC asked the FTC to require Facebook to restore the previous privacy settings, allowing users to control disclosure of personal information and to fully opt out of revealing information to third-party developers . EPIC also demanded that Facebook make its data -collection practices clearer and easier to understand.

EPIC took special aim at the dangers in allowing third-party developers automatic access to much of a user's personal information. Facebook permits third-party applications to access user information at the moment a user visits an application Relevant Products/Services web site. According to Facebook, third-party applications receive publicly available information automatically, and additional information when users authorize it or connect a Facebook account.

EPIC cited Facebook's own policy to highlight how much information applications may have access to: "your political view, your activities, your interests, your musical preferences, television shows in which you are interested, movies in which you are interested, books in which you are interested...your relationship status, your dating interests, your relationship interests, your network Relevant Products/Services affiliations, your education history, your work history, your course information, copies of photos in your photo albums, metadata associated with your photo albums...a list of user IDs mapped to your friends, your social time line, notifications that you have received from other applications, and events associated with your profile."

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Let me conclude with the closing remarks made by the ACLU's Nicole Ozer, because I think it puts all of this in the proper, big picture perspective:

...privacy on Facebook is only one part of a bigger picture, and with your help we can build a strong movement for privacy rights on all online sites and services. We hope you'll join us and continue to Demand Your dotRights—your right to control your own personal information in the world of modern technology and online services—as we work together to upgrade privacy protections and give you real control of your personal information.

Stay tuned...

1 comment:

hanum said...

facebook has more complete guide for new privacy features. That's good.