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The Resource Center Online Security Issues & Protection | post

Three Days on Facebook

by Neal O'Farrell on

Neil O’Farrell, Intersections Consumer Security Adviser is back today with a fascinating article about some of the inner workings of Facebook. It’s worth mentioning upfront to our readers that we at Identity Guard® love social networks. However, we encourage everyone to be very cautious about the amount of information you share. We’ve written about the dangers of sharing too much information on social networks like Facebook. Neal’s article today once again reinforces that point. Enjoy!

Douglas Purdy is Facebook's Director of Developer Relations, a position just three months old for the company. Part of this new job is to “improve Facebook’s relationship with the community,” and it's already been a baptism of fire for Purdy, or anyone brave enough to step into this role. In fact, last week on Facebook would challenge any individual simply using this social network.

Their roller coaster week started on January 16 (a Sunday morning) when blogs started to chatter about a new wrinkle in approving applications to your account. Facebook said it was planning to provide application developers with your immediate contact information, specifically your address and mobile phone number, if you wanted to use any of these apps. Considering the number of malicious apps that get through Facebook's compliance checks and the number of current games accused of violating their Terms of Service, this decision to share such sensitive information stunned a lot of Facebook users, including watchdog groups and media critics.

The new option really couldn't be fairly described as an option, because as a user you couldn't choose to "share or not share" your address and phone number. You either allowed the developers access to this information, or you were denied use of their application.

So, while free, the application would come with a price.

The following Monday (January 17), just twenty-four hours later, Facebook announced this new feature was on hold. In a post appearing on Facebook's developer blog, Purdy announced:

“Over the weekend, we got some useful feedback that we could make people more clearly aware of when they are granting access to this data. We agree, and we are making changes to help ensure you only share this information when you intend to do so. We’ll be working to launch these updates as soon as possible, and will be temporarily disabling this feature until those changes are ready. We look forward to re-enabling this improved feature in the next few weeks.”

So exactly what will these changes be? That remains to be seen. Will the feature have an opt-out that still allows the application access to your Facebook account? Will the permission's verbiage be reworded? Will Facebook reconsider the option on a whole? Only time will tell. And while no one outside of Facebook knows for certain, the decision to not implement this authorization was an encouraging gesture, especially considering that Facebook has received criticism over the years in their regards to users' privacy.

Facebook has always emphasized the "social" aspects of their social network as a rebuttal to privacy criticisms, which is why this retracting of this option comes as a surprise. Maybe it's a sign of a new Facebook for the new year. Perhaps the sharing site reconsidered this option in light of the criticism. Perhaps it was a step towards a more privacy-sensitive social network.

Then came January 18. Perhaps not.

Matt Cutts, head of Google's anti-spam team, blogged about an alarming discovery he made concerning Facebook's top advertisers. As reported by AdAge and Comscore, the top five advertisers on Facebook were:

• AT&T
• Match.com
• Make-My-Baby.com
• Verizon
• Google

While the top two and bottom two advertisers are familiar brands to most people, the advertiser holding Slot #3 was a newcomer., Make-My-Baby. A start-up, buying 1.75 billion ad impressions? Something didn't sound right to Cutts so he paid Make-My-Baby.com a visit.

Make-My-Baby.com, on the surface, is a "paper doll site" where you place various hats, glasses, and silly accessories on a baby's face. But to any visitors to their site, what appeared to be a harmless game became much more sinister when the site asked visitors to "install a browser plug-in to present an enhanced experience" before they can play. If you ever visited that site, on agreeing to the terms of the plug-in your browser's default search engine and homepage would be automatically switched to Bing, Microsoft's own search engine; and a portion of any revenue generated by search ads goes to another unknown firm called Zugo, creator of Make-My-Baby.com.

In the first 24 hours that this story broke on Read, Write, Web, the fallout has been interesting to say the least:

• Make-My-Baby.com is no longer online. (You are re-routed to PredictMyBaby.com instead.)
• Comscore denies they made any such report. (AdAge provided to Read, Write, Web the Comscore chart that AdAge was referring.)
• Bing has terminated their relationship with the developers of Make-My-Baby.com

Perhaps the most interesting reaction is from Facebook:

Make-My-Baby is not an advertiser at all on Facebook and any affiliates that try to push people there we would shut down. Those ads would not be allowed as part of our policy.

In other words, Facebook is denying that they do business with a company that purchased nearly 2 billion advertising impressions.

These three days, once again, brings Facebook under scrutiny as to exactly how they are running their business. On one hand, the social networking superstar is listening to the criticism, seeming to want change in their public perception of users' privacy. On the other hand, it seems to be business as usual.

So which is it?

What we as users of social networking sites must keep in mind through all this that when we use a service that is "free" it really isn't. We may not be paying to use and enjoy Facebook, but we still make money for Facebook – in the ads that appear on individual pages and in the data users are compelled to share. Simply keeping you information offline may not be the absolute answer (while you can police yourself, who will police your friends?), but it is a start.

We must give ourselves limits not only in what we share, but what we are willing to accept. If Facebook is not compliant with your desires of privacy, a terrific solution is to curb your use of the service. Generic updates. No pictures. Limiting profile information. Your relationship with Facebook is only as personal as you choose to make it. And if you decide not to use Facebook, for whatever reason, it’s no big deal.

Remember that when it comes to social connections and contacts, Facebook does not have the final say. You do. You hold the power in what is shared and how much is shared. The final decision is yours. Now that's the real power of social networking.

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