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Facebook Sharing Too Much Personal Data With Application Developers 165

An anonymous reader writes "Remember the Facebook News Feed privacy uproar? What about the Beacon scandal from late last year? Privacy activists are rallying around yet another major issue at Facebook, in which the company is secretly sharing user data with third parties. Researchers from the University of Virginia recently announced that in a study of the top 150 Facebook applications, more than 90% were given access to information that was not needed to function correctly. That Scrabble or Superpoke application you really like? Its developers get access to your religion, sexuality and home town. Facebook's position was summed up by Georgetown Law Professor Dan Solove, 'They seem to be going on the assumption that if someone uses Facebook, they really have no privacy concerns.' Do Facebook users deserve privacy? "
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Facebook Sharing Too Much Personal Data With Application Developers

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  • Net (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rinisari ( 521266 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:45PM (#22336246) Homepage Journal
    If you post it on the 'net, it's public information, no matter how secure or private the application is. One must treat his or her information on social networks this way, no exceptions.
  • Deserve Privacy? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by FuzzyDaddy ( 584528 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:46PM (#22336260) Journal
    Do Facebook users deserve privacy?

    At this point, I'd say no.

    Personally, given their abysmal track record so far, I'd say that anyone using them at this point should assume they have no privacy at all. To some extent facebook is guilty of false advertising, by seeming to allow you to restrict other users from seeing some of your information. But why anyone who put anything on Facebook would expect any privacy at all, is a mystery to me.

  • by verbalcontract ( 909922 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:48PM (#22336308)

    When you add an application, it asks you quite clearly:

    [ ] Know who I am and access my information.

    It's the first checkbox.

    Or, even better: you don't need to use applications! Hell, you don't even need to use Facebook! There are services like Hushmail for people who want privacy in their communications.

  • by zbend ( 827907 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:54PM (#22336412)
    Wait, last time I checked Facebook doesn't automaticly install apps you have to do it and confirm you are allowing this app to acccess some of your information. They don't give third parties your info, you do.
  • Re:Net (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CastrTroy ( 595695 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:54PM (#22336418) Homepage
    Exactly. Just look at what happened with the "private" myspace pictures. If you don't want the information getting out, don't post it on the internet.
  • by gravyface ( 592485 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:55PM (#22336438)
    Deserve? Yes, everyone deserves the right to keep their personal lives private. Should they expect privacy? Not likely. There's no free lunch in life, online or offline: why would Facebook spend many millions of dollars maintaining a social network without milking every last bit of profit out of their user base? They're going to do whatever they can get away with, period. I don't know why people find this so hard to grasp: it's like when I try to explain to people that those "free emoticons" they so fondly install are filling up somebody's offshore server with their personal information and filling their monitor with pop-up advertisements.
  • by NeoSkandranon ( 515696 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:55PM (#22336444)
    Maybe I'm just that suspicious, but the first time I went to look at one of those "applications" on facebook, the first checkbox in a list of a half dozen you can select before you hit "go" was a riff on "Allow this application to access my personal info" ---I automatically assumed that meant ALL my info, and promptly cancelled whatever it was.

    Did anyone ever really have the assumption that that information was needed to make the app function, and not just a way of tricking users into giving up demographic info to third parties?

    Personally I'm not sure Facebook is in the wrong on this one. It's up in big letters that you're giving whatever application it is access to your personal info--and all those things are OPTIONAL to place in your profile. I don't know that it should their fault that users don't think it through and then become surprised/outraged when they find out what it really means.
  • by Spasemunki ( 63473 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:58PM (#22336500) Homepage
    Facebook's position was summed up by Georgetown Law Professor Dan Solove, 'They seem to be going on the assumption that if someone
    uses Facebook, they really have no privacy concerns.'

    "They seem to assume that people who post their name, address, sexual orientation and gender on giant roadside billboards don't care if strangers know their name, address, sexual orientation and gender! It's like they think that people who go out into the crowded streets don't care who knows what shirt they're wearing!"
  • It's an API (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mattwarden ( 699984 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:58PM (#22336510)
    Dude, what is so hard here? It is an API. Do people typically customize an API for every user (as in application using the API) to limit the available calls only to what is needed? It is an interface. The data available in said interface is CLEARLY DOCUMENTED. Yes, technically Scrabble has access to the religion of its users. Yes, it could be storing this.

    Seriously, what is confusing here? You have to agree when you add an application that it will be able to access your profile data. When you say 'yes, allow this', why would you be surprised that the application is then allowed to do what you just allowed?

    http://developers.facebook.com/documentation.php?doc=fql [facebook.com]
  • Yes and no (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @02:00PM (#22336534)
    I have never bought into the argument that communicating online should always be legally regarded as the equivalent of having a conversation in public. People frequently put access controls and encryption on information sent over the Internet, and it's not like every person on the Internet has the ability to listen in on what you're saying in an IM conversation, emails, etc. There should be a reasonable basis to assume privacy in certain contexts, such as email and IM. IMO, the law should sanction people who eavesdrop on such communications without a good reason.

    With Facebook, it all depends on the context. They should be required to show what information they are passing onto their application developers, but there should be no legal protection beyond that. People should be able to sell off their personal information in exchange for something they want. The only reasonable issue here is when the user is not able to reasonably find out and consent to the sharing of the information.

    Personally, I am a lot more concerned with things like the FBI's latest attempts to get carte blanche access to email. If there is any institution that will destroy privacy in America, it's the federal government. Every major information/privacy issue that comes back to haunt the average person stems from the law or law enforcement agencies. The reason we worry about identity theft on the financial side of things is that the **law** does not put the onus on the lender to verify the identity of their customer. Why should it be my responsibility to ensure that someone isn't signing up in my name for credit cards? You worry about devastating legal decisions for privacy? The precedents are being set by the DoJ, not corporate America.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 07, 2008 @02:10PM (#22336682)
    Everything is going online. It is now, not in the future, that we demand privacy and protection.

    I do everything online. This includes transmitting legal documents, banking and having meetings. When I have a meeting at a local restaurant, I don't expect them to bug my booth and listen in. Sure, having a conversation there isn't giving them "personally identifiable" information but aggregated, the information can identify me, my clients and my work.

    When I use my bank, I don't want them to transmit my transactions save my name to a 3rd party. Why? Pretty soon someone can piece together my actions (always buying a beer at this location on friday night between 8:35-9:05pm) and me.

    What I think we need is a blanket privacy statement and recompense if broken.

    Every action I'm engaging in is now somehow online. My banking, entertainment purchases, my religious organizations. I only expect more and more of what I do to be online. It's the way of the future, databases and all that. You can say "just don't use it" but the reality is every action has become easier because someone created a database and now those databases are online.

  • by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @02:14PM (#22336732) Homepage
    > They seem to be going on the assumption that if someone uses Facebook, they really have
    > no privacy concerns.

    Sounds like a reasonable assumption to me.

    > Do Facebook users deserve privacy?

    Sure. And they can have it. All they need to do is keep the stuff that they want to remain private off Facebook.
  • Re:It's an API (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kebes ( 861706 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @02:14PM (#22336744) Journal
    You're right, of course. The fact is that Facebook provides a uniform, generic API. It's up to application developers which bits of information are relevant to their application.

    But that's not to say this is the only way to do it. It would be possible, for instance, to have the API set such that the application initially makes a request for which database fields it will need to use. Then the application is only allowed to use those fields; all others are invisible. When a user installs an app, it clearly shows which fields the app will be using. This would allow users to make informed choices about which apps to install. If "SuperPoke" says it will access your friends list, that's fine. If it says it will access your address and phone number, that's suspicious.

    My point is that Facebook decided to implement a binary security model: either you don't install the app, or you give it access to everything. This doesn't seem like the best model. As a general security rule, an application should be given access to the absolute minimum breadth of resources/data needed to do its job properly.

    This is why I don't install Facebook apps: there is no mechanism for controlling the security or even establishing a chain of trust for the application developer.
  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland AT yahoo DOT com> on Thursday February 07, 2008 @02:22PM (#22336876) Homepage Journal
    of course the deserve privacy, everybody does.

    Perhaps they shouldn't expect it, but that's different.
  • Re:Net (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Pendersempai ( 625351 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @02:23PM (#22336922)
    So you don't do use a bank or credit card that has an optional web interface or send any email or say anything in an instant message or skype conversation that you'd prefer to keep private?

    Your advice is wildly overreaching. It's like telling MADD, "if you don't want to get killed by drunk drivers, don't leave your house."
  • Re:Net (Score:4, Insightful)

    by heinzkunz ( 1002570 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @02:33PM (#22337124)
    I use online banking, and I damn well expect my account to not be publicly available. Why can't I expect a social networking site to respect my privacy the same way my bank does?

    I agree with you that information posted to social networks can't be considered private, but that's because they are broken, and their users have the right to complain about it.
  • "Secretly"? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by quadelirus ( 694946 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @02:44PM (#22337344)
    I don't see how this is a big secret. When you add an application there is a checkbox that says (and I quote), "Allow this application to... Know who I am and access my information." If you uncheck this box Facebook tells you "Granting access to information is REQUIRED to add applications. If you are not willing to grant access to your information, DO NOT ADD THIS APPLICATION."

    I saw this the first time I went to add a Facebook app, and thought "hey, I don't want that, so I'm not going to add it."

    Facebook is an advertising platform just like everyone else, so either I'm missing something (which, I'll admit is entirely possible--I recognize that I make mistakes all the time), or is there really a story here?

    BTW, just read the terms of service for each application--if it doesn't say what they will do with your data, don't add the app. Then it isn't a whole lot different than putting the same data into any other web application. Also, being aware that this can happen, don't put data on your facebook profile you don't want the rest of the world seeing. It's not rocket science-just common sense.
  • Facebook Developer (Score:4, Insightful)

    by justfred ( 63412 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @03:27PM (#22338150) Homepage
    I'm a newbie Facebook app developer.

    Here's the info I can see for any user that adds my app and clicks the box:

              uid*, first_name, last_name, name*, pic_small, pic_big, pic_square, pic, affiliations, profile_update_time, timezone, religion, birthday, sex, hometown_location, meeting_sex, meeting_for, relationship_status, significant_other_id, political, current_location, activities, interests, is_app_user, music, tv, movies, books, quotes, about_me, hs_info, education_history, work_history, notes_count, wall_count, status, has_added_app

    (More info on the already-linked http://developers.facebook.com/documentation.php?doc=fql [facebook.com] )

    To me this seems like way, way too much. I haven't told our marketing people we can get all this.
  • Stupid Question (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dwye ( 1127395 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @03:32PM (#22338248)
    From someone who, for the most part, cannot conceive why people would want to use an Internet-based something like Facebook, in the first place (seriously, why post your life to 1 billion Chinese, let alone any other group?):

    Why is the application not treated as-if it were another user? From what I understand, there is a reasonable granularity of privacy settings for users. Let each app be a unique user, and you automatically get these benefits.

    Or are the apps client-based, so that my Facebook on machine X can use apps and on machine Y it cannot, because of how it was set up? In this case, I suppose that I understand (since an app running as "me" only restricts "my" privacy as a favor, and cannot be compelled or punished, except by deletion).

  • Re:Net (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kellyb9 ( 954229 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @05:36PM (#22340616)
    I disagree.. mostly. Facebook users aren't really looking for privacy when they post information, but when someone no longer wants the service they should sure AS HELL be able to delete their personal information. Facebook won't delete accounts, they'll only deactivate your account. I've seen no evidence that my account is actually deactivated since I still recieve friend requests. These third party services that Facebook offered has actually made the overall product much more irritating, if thats even possible.

    I think anyone, including users of Facebook, deserve as much privacy as they've set their accounts up for - no more, no less.
  • Re:Net (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Tim Browse ( 9263 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @05:45PM (#22340770)

    Why can't I expect a social networking site to respect my privacy the same way my bank does?

    If you gave the social networking site as much money as you do your bank, maybe you could.

  • Re:Net (Score:5, Insightful)

    by IamTheRealMike ( 537420 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @06:08PM (#22341154)

    Well that's what I thought. But it appears that's actually not the case. If you RTFA and click through, you find a page that explicitly says that friends applications can view my data. Which presumably they can then do more or less anything with, seeing as how keeping that data is only "enforced" by the terms of service. The defaults are set such that my friends apps, any by implication anybody who can code, can view everything except my sexual preferences, basically.

    That's pretty surprising, and I'm glad Ms Felt has called this out. It means that anybody who writes a moderately successful app can build a giant database of things that I never intended to be in any database other than Facebooks. Part of the reason Facebook has been successful is that it does actually have privacy controls, and people feel they can share their data with only their friends (and facebook inc, of course, but that's only one company). The fact that it's not true is a pretty gaping oversight.

    What I find especially funny is the big bold sign at the top saying "Facebook does not sell your personal data". No, they give it away for free instead. Great.

"The pathology is to want control, not that you ever get it, because of course you never do." -- Gregory Bateson