Facebook Cleans Up, but Apps Must Change

On Facebook, the struggle to figure out who owns and accesses our data remains years away from any resolution -- if we ever reach one. Last week, Facebook announced that it will act to shore up some privacy concerns that were voiced a month ago by Jennifer Stoddart, the privacy commissioner of Canada.

At the time, Stoddart noted that Facebook's current privacy settings were unclear to users. Among her complaints: The fact that Facebook stores information even after users delete an account, a criticism privacy advocates had also leveled at the social network in the past.

facebook privacy apps
Aside from the information in our profiles that we choose to make available to our friends, friends of friends, or everyone on Facebook, the biggest security and privacy loophole could be in third-party applications, another issue Facebook addressed yesterday.

These are those quizzes and games, where you decide what movie character you're most like or the team to which you mostly closely associate yourself. To date, when you choose to access the app, you're not only exposing all of your information in your profile to the third-party developer that created it, you're also surfacing your friends' data. As ReadWriteWeb reported, the northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put together a campaign to display just how fragile your privacy is on the social network when you access one of these applications.

As Sarah Perez of RWW writes, "The second question is even more disturbing. It informs you that everything on your profile is made available to the developers when your friends take a quiz. To drive this point home, the ACLU's Quiz loads up information pulled from your friends' profiles and displays that data below the answer for your perusal. Here, information on your friends is shown including hometowns, favorite books, political views, networks, birthdays, number of wall posts and even personal photos."

Finally, this troubling feature will change. It has to. According to Facebook, applications will have to be more transparent in showing users what pieces of data they hope to access. Ideally, users will have to sign off on what pieces of their Facebook data (and their friends') that developers are allowed to pull into the application.

What will this mean? Essentially, it will be a big blow to application developers on Facebook, but ultimately a win for users. For developers, it shows what fragile business models they have as they seek to make their money on the Facebook platform. These privacy changes aren't made with malice toward the developers on Facebook's part. In fact, the company is incredibly generous with the traffic and engagement it gives these third-party sites and apps, so far asking nothing in return.

But in the end, Facebook must protect its users.

For Facebook, privacy represents a huge business opportunity. Facebook Connect allows us to take our identities (as portrayed on Facebook) to other sites, streamlining registration and allowing us to find friends who also belong to those sites. As this happens, and if Facebook can become the trusted provider to manage our identities, it could quickly deliver a more powerful business advantage than any ad it sells on the site ever could.

C.G. Lynch covers consumer web and social technologies for CIO.com. He writes frequently on Twitter, Facebook and Google. You can follow him on Twitter: @cglynch.

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