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Sarah Seltzer: Facebook Will Share Users’ Phone Number, Email, and Address with Third Parties

March 3, 2011

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By **Sarah Seltzer**

From Alternet.Org.

In a move that was announced, and then quietly postponed, back in January, Facebook is again planning to allow third-party applications (folks who write games and applications that use the Facebook interface) to access users’ most personal contact information—including addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. The social networking mega-site would ask users’ explicit permission to do this, as it currently does when users want to tap into these often frivolous third-party apps—and the company is also “considering” an age cap that would prevent teenagers and children from allowing this information to be released.

From the original post at Facebook’s in-house Developer blog in January:

We are now making a user’s address and mobile phone number accessible as part of the UserGraph object. Because this is sensitive information, we have created the new “user_address” and “user_user_mobile_phone” permissions. These permissions must be explicitly granted to your application by the user via our standard permissions dialogs.

But this announcement quickly drew ire from privacy advocates who were concerned that these third-parties might use the information for any number of reasons. And then the company suspended the application within a few days with plans to re-open it—which it is now doing. If you want to be pre-emptive and block the site from releasing this information, here is a how-to guide from Zdnet.com.

Those expressing concern with the new move included U.S. Reps Edward Markey (D-Mass) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) of the house “privacy caucus” forcefully spoke upasking the company to reconsider. Markey received a long response from the company’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, Marni Lavine, which he posted on his website here.

Levine assured the Congressmen that the company was working to make its permission-granted process clear, but just a few days ago the congressmen said they weren’t fully reassured, and reiterated their demands:

“Mobile phone numbers and personal addresses, particularly those that can “Mobile phone numbers and personal addresses, particularly those that can identify teenagers using Facebook, require special protection,” said Rep. Markey in a statement. “We must ensure that this sensitive information is safeguarded, with clear, distinct permissions so that users know precisely what’s in store when they opt to share this data with third parties. Moreover, simple, easily accessible tools are needed so users can resind these permissions if they subsequently find they no longer want their information in the hands of third parties.”

Others were less diplomatic in assessing the move from the social media behemoth. Helen Popkin at MSNBC wrote:

“This is how Facebook rolls. Strip away a huge chunk of your privacy, cry ‘Our bad!’ and roll it back when users and/or privacy advocates complain. Then wait awhile, and do whatever it is Facebook planned to do anyway.”

She compared Facebook to a pot of water, and the public to a frog being boiled in its depths. One has to wonder what Aaron Sorkin would think of the metaphor—and all the drama over Facebook’s ever-expanding push to erode privacy concerns and urge users to share more information.

The issue has come up frequently in the last several years, and there have been multiple mea culpas from executives in the company when the public has reacted negatively. But bit by bit, privacy has been vanishing—even as more people put more of their lives and information on the site.

As AlterNet writer Allan Badiner wrote this summer in an article called “How Facebook Betrayed Users and Undermined Online Privacy”:

“…users are creating a cumulative data repository of all the relationships in the entire world and the intimate details of everyone’s lives. The databases and algorithms employed at Facebook to store, crunch, and make inferences about you are far greater holders of data than any government agency.”

Several times in the past, users have found their information divulged and have had to go back and re-set settings to have the same level of privacy as before. In 2007, MoveOn.org targeted Facebook in a petition, urging members to express concern with vanishing privacy on the site.

Copyright 2011 Sarah Seltzer

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This post originally appeared at Alternet.Org.

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