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Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean Facebook Isn't Following You

By Rob Spiegel
Sep 27, 2011 2:45 PM PT

Facebook's most recent API allows applications to post status updates to a user's wall without their intervention. This is part of Facebook Instant and is known as frictionless sharing. This means users no longer have to proactively decide to share an item, and there's a risk that something could be unintentionally shared with Facebook friends.

Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean Facebook Isn't Following You

This is an addition to the growing list of Facebook privacy concerns. Nic Cubrilovic, a hacker and blogger, published a post on Sunday detailing the relationship between Facebook and user information.

Even after a user logged out, he explained, Facebook could track every page the user visited via cookies.

On Tuesday, Cubrilovic noted in a follow-up post that Facebook had taken some steps to resolve the issue but that it wanted to retain the ability to track members after log-out for safety and spam purposes.

Cubrilovic recommended that users clear cookies or use a different browser for Facebook than they used for other Web activities. He also noted that other issues had come to light that were ripe for future investigation.

Employees of Facebook have commented on Cubrilovic's posts, acknowledging the company has not done as good a job as it could have in explaining its cookie practices. They said this incident provided a good opportunity to fix that.

Facebook confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that Cubrilovic's findings were accurate but said that the company deletes the data and does not use it or sell it to other companies.

Facebook now apparently is exploring additional ways to address the problem.

Brazen or Blundering?

It takes a suspension of disbelief to accept the notion tracking members after logout was not a calculated move by Facebook. Credulity is particularly strained when you consider the cavalier attitude Facebook has displayed toward user privacy over the past several years.

"It's either a ridiculous programming error that should have been corrected long ago or a sterling example of Facebook's continuing tin ear toward, and practices regarding, user privacy," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

"If it were an accident, it seems like the company should have rushed to fix it," said King.

Users should take CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who famously said privacy is "a social norm of the past," at his word, said King. "That certainly seems to be the case on Facebook."

While millions of users view Facebook as something very personal and comfy in their lives, it's actually a business with a focus on the bottom line. Facebook wouldn't be the first private company to blur lines in the interest of profits.

"The company continues to press the envelope on personal privacy. I'm not sure if this is a philosophical or even generational issue so much as it is a strategic mechanism for monetizing client data," said King. "Like any 'free' service, Facebook's eventual cost is unclear and could be very dear."

Should You Be Worried?

Facebook is on the spot right now. Users have voiced skepticism about the recent changes. Many have made significant investments of time and personal information in Facebook, so changes can feel intrusive.

"This would be less damaging a few months or years ago, but coming right after all their new feature launches and with them in the spotlight, it looks bad," Steven Savage, technology project manager and Geek 2.0 blogger, told TechNewsWorld.

Savage is convinced Facebook's tracking system was deliberate.

"It may have been poorly implemented, not thought out, launched too early -- but obviously this was intentional," said Savage.

There have always been privacy issues with Facebook, he noted, but this one looks particularly bad.

"I would be concerned. Facebook has been very casual about privacy over the years," said Savage. "I wonder how this affects the use of Facebook at companies by both individuals and marketing. Will Facebook be limited or banned at work now?"

Perhaps this latest misstep is a sign that Facebook hasn't matured as a company under the leadership of its wunderkind cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, now 27 years old.

"Facebook handles a lot of data, and it's still thinking like a startup," said Savage. "Privacy issues are bound to come up. Facebook is also part of so many lives that it's inevitable people will be concerned."


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