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Facebook Privacy and You: An In-Depth Look

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A recent article in the Wall Street Journal turned the spotlight on Facebook apps and how they can compromise your personal security. In truth, all social media channels have privacy issues, but with almost a billion users, Facebook is far and away the most obvious place to look for privacy concern issues.

The Journal examined one hundred of Facebook’s most popular apps and found some look for everything from your current city location to email address to, believe it or not, sexual preference. What many Facebook users do not realize is that these apps often make this information known to all of their Facebook friends.

The problem becomes more pronounced because third-party apps use this information outside of Facebook. One Yahoo service powered by Facebook requests access to a person’s religious and political leanings as a condition for using it. Skype seeks the Facebook photos and birthdays of its users and their friends.

Yahoo and Skype defend this practice by pointing out the information is used customize their services for users and that they are committed to protecting privacy. “Data that is shared with Yahoo is managed carefully,” a Yahoo spokeswoman said.

A prime example of this seeming innocuous information sharing can be seen in Yahoo News. A friend recently messaged me, saying she was going to have to get rid of Facebook even though she uses it extensively for her home-based business. The problem? Every Yahoo news article she read was being posted to her Facebook Timeline, even when Facebook wasn’t open. I quickly explained to her how to disable this sharing, to her great relief.

Privacy advocates point to this kind of incident as one of the inherent problems with Facebook apps. They default to sharing information and turning that default off can be confusing, if not impossible, for the average user.

As we all should know, nothing is truly free. Facebook is a free service and boldly proclaims it always will be. It’s true there is no subscription fee, but users routinely pay in another way. They offer up valuable details of their personal lives, friends, and religious and political activities that Facebook offers up as a bonanza of information to advertisers eager to pay for access to that information.

Facebook does require third-party apps to gain permission before accessing a user’s personal details. But, the friends of that user are not notified when information about them is used by that app.  Worse than that, the Wall Street Journal found solid evidence that Facebook often does not enforce its own data privacy rules. Some examples of such rule breakers included:

  • “MyPad for iPad,” has a two-paragraph privacy policy that says it is “adding privacy settings shortly.” Privacy policies that describe how they collect, use, and share data are required by Facebook. Facebook’s privacy requirement is being ignored without action by Facebook.
  • Dozens of apps allow advertisers that haven’t been approved by Facebook within their apps, which enable advertisers, including Google, to track users of the apps, according to data collected by PrivacyChoice, which offers privacy services.
  • Quiz games “Between You and Me” and “Truths About You” seek dozens of personal details—including the sexual preferences of users and their friends—that don’t appear to be used by the app in the questions it poses to users about their friends. Facebook requires apps to collect only the information they need to operate.

A Facebook spokesman responded to the Journal’s exposed by saying: “We’re focused on helping people make informed decisions about the apps they choose to use. App developers agree to our policies when they register. If we find an app has violated our policies—through our automated systems, internal policy teams, or user reports—we take action.”

Many users aren’t satisfied with such remarks. “Consumers are being pinned like insects to a pinboard, the way we’re being studied,” said Jill Levenson, a creative project manager at Boys & Girls Clubs of America in Atlanta. Levenson said she had deleted nearly one hundred apps on Facebook and Twitter because she was uncomfortable with the way details about her life might be used.

Like so much in the world today, the face of social media changes so quickly users can’t keep up. Just five years ago MySpace had twice the number of users as Facebook. In that year (2007), Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg welcomed what were then called widget-makers by ensuring their software could operate smoothly within Facebook. It also offered these makers the chance to sell ads within Facebook.

Third parties were elated and bought in. Widgets were renamed “apps,” and within just two months, there were over 2,000 apps available to Facebook users. One year later, Apple started its own app store for use with the iPhone and iPod Touch, and now iPad.

Facebook profiles now default to let apps obtain all data from a user’s friends except sexual preference, religion, and political views.  As a result, even if a user has set his or her birthday, location, and “online status” messages to be private to friends, their friends can approve an app that will also obtain that information.

In 2010, Facebook rolled out its new disclosure notices in apps. Users who attempted to acquire an app were met with a pop-up screen listing the types of information the app was seeking. Amy Vernon, a digital consultant in Elizabeth, N.J., said that she used to use more apps on Facebook, but the permissions screens have made her more cautious. “Very often I get an invitation from a friend for a game and I’ll click it and see the permissions, and decide, I’m not really that curious about this app,” she said. “I almost always hit decline.”

While this addition from Facebook is welcomed, it is obvious privacy is still an issue. Perhaps most troubling is how little attention users pay to what information they are offering up. As in everything, personal responsibility is the best defense of all.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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