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Facebook's phone directory is a worrying direction for users

Opinion The move from social network to address book nears completion
Mon Jan 17 2011, 18:42
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A BRIDGE TOO FAR should be the outcome of Facebook's latest attempt to flog personal data but in all likelihood, few of Facebook's users will even bat an eye.

The news that Facebook would be allowing developers access to users' addresses and phone numbers should not be greeted with surprise, rather acknowledgement of what the perceptive minority has already figured out: its users' personal data is a saleable commodity for Facebook.

Facebook is keen to stress the need for users to consent before developers gain access to their addresses and telephone numbers, however that didn't stop insecurity outfit Sophos from advising Facebook users to purge that information from their Facebook accounts. The underlying message was clear and couldn't have come soon enough - you can't trust Facebook to handle your data responsibly.

Insecurity firms are known for spreading fear to sell products, but here Sophos' advice is clear, only prudent and worthy of consideration. Because of this, it led Facebook to issue a statement in which it claimed that users have total control over their data and who they share it with. The truth is that notable events in Facebook's short history suggest otherwise.

Last July, Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg admitted that Facebook gave users' data to advertisers, even saying that the firm "designed Facebook to provide relevant and interesting advertising content to you in a way that protects your privacy completely".

That complete privacy protection was laid bare later in the year with the news that advertisers had been trawling the social networking website gathering user-IDs (UIDs). Facebook initially scoffed at the investigation by the Wall Street Journal that found harvested UIDs were sold for cash, only to later take action on the matter by encrypting UIDs.

It is precisely these kinds of privacy breaches that should lead Facebook users to question not only the firm's motives but the manner in which it actually goes about "protecting" its users' data.

Facebook says that making users' addresses and telephone numbers available to applications developers "was made to improve the user experience of applications". This brings up the question, just what kind of application needs such personal details to 'improve' the user's experience?

One wonders, from a seemingly innocuous pizza delivery application all the way to social profiling by analysing a user's address and associated demographic data. Got kids? Facebook and its advertisers can automatically rustle up a list of schools that your children could apply for based upon your post code. That's just two examples, but surely they're thinking up more.

To serve as an example of what is currently possible even without Facebook's latest information grab, one needs to look no further than Gotham Dating. The dating website has come out and said that it intends to populate its database of 'potentials' with data that it will harvest from social networking profiles and other kinds of publicly available information.

Gotham Dating claimed its actions are "in the interest of public safety, especially in light of the wanton disregard for human life displayed in the Arizona Shooting".

Given the individuals behind the website displayed no hesitation or shame about cashing in on the Arizona shootings in which six people died and 13 were injured, one has to wonder what the outfit run by people who take the deaths of six people and use it for profit will do with your personal information.

Facebook's statement continues by urging its users to think before posting something on its website, because the truth is that once anything is on Facebook, it's fair game. "Of course we always encourage people to think about what information they are sharing and with whom and to only share these details with applications that they trust," said a Facebook spokesperson.

When Facebook announced its messaging system, we said that a Facebook voice-over-IP (VOIP) service wasn't far off, and with phone numbers now available to developers it seems that dream, in some shape, is almost certain to be realised. However, if Facebook can make enough cash by providing others with a telephone number database, then it might not even bother running its own VOIP service, opting to make money as a telephone directory service for advertisers and anyone else who will pay instead.

In fact, the public message coming out of Facebook tends to suggest that the social notworking website is positioning itself as a directory service. In another statement, Facebook said, "For more than a decade, people have been going from website to website and entering their address every time they buy something that needs to be shipped, or their phone number when they might need to be called or sent an SMS to track an order or for general customer service. We saw an easy way to solve this problem in a way that can enable more efficient and user-friendly applications on the web in areas like commerce, ticketing and events."

So there you have it, all of this is another way Facebook wants to enrich its social graph. Whether it is done through messaging or offering up personal data so it knows where people shop, visit or call, the name of the game is to increase the value of each profile Facebook stores.

Those who hope that Facebook's latest attempt to erode privacy will lead to a mass withdrawal from the social networking or a change in attitudes towards the website will, as usual, be disappointed. Facebook knows it has reached critical mass, a point of ubiquity where users stay on the network because of others. It's also a point where the number of users who simply take whatever Facebook offers greatly outnumbers those who realise that Facebook is just in the business of selling their information.

The question is, why do the majority of Facebook users not care? Facebook's privacy shredding behaviour is reaching deeper into users' personal data and grabbing whatever it can only because Facebook's users not only accept it but welcome it as though it is merely some labour saving convenience. It is a damning indictment of the laziness of society today that Facebook's market research found that web users thought having to enter their address was too much work when buying something on the Internet.

With such user attitudes, is it appropriate to criticise companies like Facebook, who after all are in business to make money, or should users be the ones to take the real responsibility for the destroyers of privacy they have created? µ

 

 

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