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Report: Facebook's Privacy Promises Flawed
Posted December 3, 2007
Report: Facebook's Privacy Promises Flawed
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By Jennifer LeClaire. Updated December 3, 2007 8:11AM

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Researchers are claiming Facebook's Beacon online ad system is even more intrusive when it comes to privacy matters than protesters against the technology might have thought initially.

On Friday, Stefan Berteau, a senior research engineer at Computer Associates' Threat Research Group, published findings that reveal Beacon reports member activities on third-party partner sites even if Facebook users are not logged in, and even if members have declined to opt in to the Beacon program.

"It can happen completely without their knowledge," Berteau said in his report. "The bottom line is that Facebook is materially misrepresenting the privacy impact of their Beacon program, and presenting users with the appearance of control over their information when in fact they have almost none."

Beacon Revealed

Beacon sends messages to Facebook members' friends about what they are purchasing online. If a member booked a trip to Japan on Travelocity.com, for example, friends on Facebook would know it. If the member purchased a ticket to "American Gangster," that would also be known among friends.

Facebook figured that adding the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to your queue on Blockbuster.com might be something you want your friends to know about. Facebook promised members complete control over the information. The only problem, as far as privacy advocates are concerned, is that members had to opt out instead of opting in.

But Facebook made significant changes to Beacon after 50,000 Facebook members signed a MoveOn.org petition over a 10-day period, asking the site to respect user privacy.

"No stories will be published without users proactively consenting," Facebook said in a published statement. "If a user does nothing with the initial notification on Facebook, it will hide after some duration without a story being published. When a user takes a future action on a Beacon site, it will reappear and display all the potential stories along with the opportunity to click 'OK' to publish or click 'remove' to not publish."

Moving On?

If Facebook changes its policy so that no private purchases made on other Web sites are displayed publicly on Facebook without a user's explicit permission, that would be a huge step in the right direction -- and it would say a lot about the ability of everyday Internet users to band together to make a difference, said Adam Green, civic communications director for MoveOn.org Civic Action.

"Sites like Facebook are revolutionizing how we communicate with each other and organize around issues together in a 21st century democracy. The question is: Will corporate advertisers get to write the rules of the Internet or will these new social networks protect our basic rights, like privacy?" Green asked. "We hope Facebook's decision sets an important precedent for Internet user's rights."

However, CA's findings suggest that problems might still remain. Facebook was not immediately available for comment on Berteau's findings, but Berteau offered up the social-networking site's responses to his queries on the CA blog. When he described relates to data being collected despite opt-outs and users not being logged in.

Although Facebook assured Berteau that no actions he has taken on other Web sites can be sent to Facebook as long as he is logged out, Berteau's own tests -- and tests verified by independent parties -- contradict the statement. "I am continuing the dialog in an attempt to explain the concerns that this raises," he said.

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