Facebook Does About-Face Following Privacy Backlash
Days after giving app developers the ability to learn users' home addresses and cellphone numbers, Facebook has decided to put the feature on hold in order to improve it for a later redeployment. When the feature was first implemented Friday, the social network said it would enable various new app functions in fields like e-commerce, but privacy advocates expressed serious concern.
Jan 18, 2011 12:02 PM PT
Facebook has temporarily shelved plans to share members' home addresses and mobile numbers with app developers, following a strong backlash over privacy and safety concerns.
The social networking giant had announced late last Friday that it would make this information accessible to developers through its User Graph object, subject to certain restrictions.
However, warnings were raised that this could further endanger Facebook users.
Facebook was apparently trying to make user data more portable to ease online shopping for users through the sharing of their data.
"We're working on ways to make it easy for people to take the information they've entered into Facebook with them across the Web," Facebook spokesperson Malorie Lucich told TechNewsWorld.
"For example, when it's easy to share your address with a shopping site, the checkout process can be sped up, or you can easily sign up for up-to-the-minute alerts on special deals sent directly to your phone when there's an option to share your mobile number," Lucich added.
Facebook has "decided to put the feature on hold" while making updates and plans to re-enable the features with improvements "in the next few weeks," Lucich said.
A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing
Stories about people being harassed by so-called "Facebook stalkers" who locate them through their Facebook accounts are rife.
Further, Facebook members have repeatedly been targeted by malware authors and hackers who break into their accounts and email malware and spam to people on their friend lists.
Giving app developers access to members' home addresses and mobile phone numbers would make things even worse, Catalin Cosoi, head of online threats at BitDefender, told TechNewsWorld.
"Of course, you could use the cell numbers to create a digital agenda similar to a birthday calendar app, or to tell you how close a certain shop or event is to your home," Cosoi said. "But what if an app has access to your home address and monitors for posts containing words such as "vacation," "away" or, even better, for pictures of you away from your? The app could then notify its creator when you're away from home and tell the creator where your home is," Cosoi added.
It's Not What You Do, It's How You Do It
Perhaps Facebook had good intentions when it announced these new features. It certainly did try to protect members.
When announcing the new features, the company warned that users must explicitly grant these permissions to developers' apps. It also stated that the access and use of this data is governed by its platform policies.
Could Facebook have timed the release so few people would know about it until Monday morning?
"No one apart from Facebook can know if the timing was part of a bigger plan, but releasing updates on a Friday evening is usually a bad idea," BitDefender's Cosoi pointed out. "It can cause a lot of trouble if there are issues with the code or complaints with the functionality."
Expecting the Expected
This isn't the first time Facebook has faced a backlash over issues of privacy and security when updating its platform or adding new features. Did the company not expect a brouhaha over these new capabilities it rolled out Friday?
Facebook's Lucich didn't address this issue when asked.
However, it's possible that Facebook did factor this possibility into its calculations, Jia Wu, a senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld.
"They must have expected all kinds of response," Wu said. "But, as they've been through similar situations before, they were probably pretty confident the changes wouldn't harm their business much. And since they probably believe adding these new features is the right thing to do, they did it."
It didn't help Facebook when news erupted last week that Sacramento resident George Bronk reportedly admitted to using personal information he gleaned from women's Facebook sites to hack into their email accounts, then sending compromising photos or videos of them to people in their address books.
Bronk would sometimes allegedly take over his victims' Facebook accounts as well.
Bronk reportedly pled guilty to seven felony charges in Sacramento Superior Court Thursday. He faces up to six years in prison if convicted.
Getting Better All the Time?
Will the changes Facebook's making to its new data-sharing features be enough to secure members' privacy and keep them safe, or should it drop the new features altogether?
"I don't know if the changes would be adequate, but they'll probably be better than what Facebook released the first time," Strategy Analytics' Wu stated.
"Things like the stalker who stole and distributed women's nude pictures after getting information from their Facebook accounts will always happen, but an improved privacy system might reduce the frequency of their occurrence," Wu said.