Home > 2011 > Personal Finance > Facebook Changes Warrant Fed Probe, Privacy Experts Say

Facebook Changes Warrant Fed Probe, Privacy Experts Say

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A group of privacy and consumer organizations called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook for recent changes that they say could endanger citizens’ privacy and violate federal privacy laws. In a letter from the Electronic Privacy Information Center and nine other groups, advocates warned that Facebook’s new policies threaten to share too much personal information with advertisers.

The new features offer a “treasure trove of personal information can also provide a tempting target for stalkers, government agents, or employers,” according to the letter.

Privacy advocates are concerned about new tools on Facebook called “News Feed,” “Ticker” and “Open Graph,” which together share more information about what users and their friends are doing online. The tools are part of Facebook’s effort to allow “frictionless sharing,” which allows friends (plus Facebook’s advertisers and business partners) to see information about what users are doing online without the users themselves consciously clicking a button to share that information with others.

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“These changes in business practices give the company far greater ability to disclose the personal information of its users to its business partners than in the past,” according to the letter signed by Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, and nine other groups. “Options for users to preserve the privacy standards they have established have become confusing, impractical, and unfair.”

Facebook says that its new sharing tools are actually easy to understand, and simple to disable if they choose.

“Some groups believe people shouldn’t have the option to easily share the songs they are listening to or other content with their friends,” the company said in a prepared statement emailed to Credit.com. “We couldn’t disagree more….”

Meanwhile, last week Australian blogger Nik Cubrilovic accused Facebook of tracking users’ online activities even when they’re logged out of the website. That gives Facebook new power to track people without their knowledge or consent, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, wrote in the letter.

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In its response to Cubrilovic, Facebook said that while some of its cookies do track users after they logout, they are intended to block other people from breaking into users’ accounts. Some of those cookies gathered data about the users, but Facebook did not collect that data, and it has since stopped collecting the information altogether, Facebook told Cubrilovic.

“There was no security or privacy breach—Facebook did not store or use any information it should not have,” the company said. Facebook thanked Cubrilovic for alerting it to bugs in its system that collected unique information about users, and pointed to its ongoing communications with bloggers and its program to pay bounties to people who find bugs in its network as evidence that it cares about privacy.

But even if Facebook did fix that problem, Rotenberg wrote in his letter, they company’s overall strategy appears to be focused on gathering more and more information about its users in ways that sacrifice privacy. “As with past changes, Facebook’s new changes all point squarely in the direction of decreased consumer privacy, encouraging the sharing of increasing amounts of personal information,” according to the letter from consumer advocates.

The FTC has not announced whether it will investigate the company.

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Image: Skander, via Flickr.com

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