As the world’s most popular social networking site, Facebook has more data on us than any other private company, and a lot more than most governments.
So it can be both disconcerting and dangerous when the website — whether as a matter of policy or by mistake — lets out a lot more information than we would like.
Unfortunately for Facebook and its users, that’s happening all too frequently. As the magazine PC World so succinctly put it after the last debacle: “Another day, another Facebook security snafu.” The latest glitch was revealed on Wednesday when Facebook said it had fixed a security bug that allowed user’s to snoop on their friends’ private chats and view the pending friend requests by others.
In March, a bug exposed the private emails of many users and limited their ability to hide other contact information.
In December, Facebook changed its privacy settings, sparking a new Facebook protest group that now boasts more than 2.2 million members.
The new settings automatically share members’ information, unless they take specific steps to opt out of the info giveaway. That meant that your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, Friends List and all the pages you subscribe to were made publicly available and searchable for anyone on the web to see.
Prior to that there was Beacon, a Facebook information system that mined data from member profiles to send them targeted ads and displayed users visits to external sites on their Facebook stream.
Though a mass public outcry prompted Facebook to quickly abandon that idea, its newly-announced OpenGraph initiative is proving just as controversial.
Given that the aim of OpenGraph is to accompany Facebook members on their travels to every corner of the web, the problem could get much more serious.
The OpenGraph initiative allows websites to adopt the Facebook Connect sign-in system so that users activities on other sites are shared with all their Facebook friends.
Some aspects of the idea sound good in theory, because they will make the web more personal. But it also means that you could unwittingly expose your web activities to your wife, employer or anyone of the hundreds of people who might be “friends” on Facebook but who in reality are just as likely to be mere acquaintances, work colleagues or rivals.
That possibility scares privacy advocates. The Electronic Privacy Information Centre, an advocacy group, filed a complaint on Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission.
Facebook, which overtook MySpace as the platform of choice largely because of the control it gave users of their profiles, insists that it is fully focused on its members’ privacy needs.
Elliott Schrage, Facebook’s vice-president for public policy, told The New York Times that “for a service that has grown as dramatically as we have grown, we think our track record for security and safety is unrivalled.” Many critics disagree, pointing to the flippant comments on privacy by billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 25, who said in January that privacy was no longer a “social norm.”
“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” he said. “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” He has a point, according to a recent study by Consumer Reports.
The study of 2,000 online US households found that two-thirds of them used Facebook or MySpace. Of those, 52 per cent of them posted personal information that could pose a threat to them and their families, the report found.