Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More Privacy Problems for Facebook - Federal Complaint Filed

This is starting to get surreal. With companies as awful at protecting privacy like Facebook and Google around its almost as if they're providing cover for all the violations being conducted by government, from wiretapping to a national id card (I realize that's not intentional...just amusing).

Nonetheless, I feel obligated to follow the latest revelations coming forth about Facebook due to the sheer number of users. I've posted a series of these, detailing all the ways the company has actively and intentionally undermined user privacy. To read a few recent posts, just click here, here, here, and here.

Now let's get to the latest, particularly the complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center against the company with the Federal Trade Commission, demanding that Facebook cancel new features introduced in mid-April that compel users to share more information than before.

Networkworld reports:

Facebook users were shocked to learn this week that private chats could have been viewed by their friends because of a security hole that was only recently closed, and also that new Facebook features can secretly add applications to your profile.


"Facebook now discloses personal information to third parties that Facebook users previously did not make available," EPIC said in its complaint. "These changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook's own representations. These business practices are Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices."


Here's a summary of the FTC complaint against Facebook:

Facebook violated its own privacy policy by making user information publicly available with changes introduced the week of April 18, 2010, the complaint alleges. Facebook is now making information such as a user's hometown, education, work, activities, likes and interests public, whereas previously such information could be hidden, the complaint states.

"As a result of these material changes, Facebook requires users to designate personal information as publically linkable 'Links,' ‘Pages,' or ‘Connections' or to no longer make such information available,"the complaint states. Many Facebook users previously restricted access to this profile data, which includes users' friends list, music preferences, affiliated organizations, employment information, educational institutions, film preferences, reading preferences, and other information."

When the changes went live, Facebook presented users with a pop-up screen compelling them to link their profiles to various pages selected by Facebook based upon content entered manually into the user's profile. The user could either link their profiles to all selected pages, choose pages individually, or click the "ask me later" button.

If the "ask me later "option was chosen, users were later presented the same screen with only the "link all" and "choose individually" options. If they click "choose individually", they are taken to a page with a series of pre-checked boxes, forcing them to uncheck all boxes if they don't want their profiles linked to every page.


Facebook's privacy settings limit users' ability to browse the Web anonymously because of integration with third party site, EPIC also claims.

"Facebook uses cookies to track its users," the complaint states. "Thus, whenever a user is logged-in to Facebook and surfing the Internet, he is also transmitting information about which websites he's visited to Facebook. A user does not have to click on or interact with a social plugin for his information trail to be transmitted to Facebook."

EPIC and the other privacy groups that filed the complaint said Facebook's privacy practices are prohibited by the FTC, and asked the FTC to force Facebook to restore its previous privacy settings, restore a previous requirement that developers retain user data for no more than 24 hours, and make data collection practices easier to understand and give "Facebook users meaningful control over personal information provided by Facebook to advertisers and developers."

Click here for the complete article.

As I've said before, I think Facebook is a relatively useful tool, not just for getting in touch with old friends, but also as a political tool that can help build campaigns and spread the word about important movements or efforts. Its astonishing to me however, that a company that has so many users, and so much going for it, is so overtly hostile to their privacy and basic consumer rights.

I can only hope that this hostility and the myriad of privacy violations practiced by the company will spark a larger dialogue over what privacy is in the new information age, what rights do we as individuals have over our electronic data, and what rules must be implemented to protect them? I'd suggest people check out the ACLU'S Dotrights campaign for a better and more complete understanding where these battle lines are being drawn and what we need to do to win back control of our information.

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