Facebook And Mobile Apps Face Increasing Privacy Scrutiny
April 9, 2012

Facebook And Mobile Apps Face Increasing Privacy Scrutiny

John Neumann for RedOrbit.com

Would you feel leery about a random stranger asking personal questions regarding your religious preferences, where you ate lunch, and peeking through photos of your children?

What if this person could tell you about the clothing you purchased last weekend, what movies you rented for the last year? And then asked for the names and contact information of all your friends to gather the same information about them?

Well, many games, apps, and news readers that we blindly click “Allow” to are doing just that and we have little to no control over our private information afterwards.

An examination of 100 of the most popular Facebook apps by the Wall Street Journal found that some of these seemingly innocent games and sharing services seek the email addresses, current location and sexual preference, among other details, not only of app users but also of your online friends.

Facebook policy requires third-party app developers connecting to the social network to stipulate exactly what parts of a user profile it´ll be accessing: photos, friend list data, basic public information, writes CNET´s Steven Musil. However, a user´s friends aren´t notified if information about them is used by a friend´s app.

An examination of the apps´ activities also suggests that Facebook occasionally isn´t enforcing its own rules on data privacy.

Some of the possible Facebook policies identified by WSJ that are not being followed completely include:

- “MyPad for iPad,” has a two-paragraph privacy policy that says it is “adding Privacy settings shortly.” Privacy policies that describe how they collect, use and share data are required by Facebook. The app maker couldn´t be reached for comment.

- Dozens of apps allow advertisers that haven´t been approved by Facebook within their apps, which enables advertisers including Google to track users of the apps, according to data collected by PrivacyChoice, which offers privacy services. Google said app-makers control which technology they use to deliver online ads.

- Such apps as the popular quiz games “Between You and Me” and “Truths About You” sought dozens of personal details–including the sexual preferences of users and their friends–that don´t appear to be used by the app in the questions it poses to users about their friends.

On Thursday, after Journal inquiries, “Between You and Me” began asking users for much less personal data.

One Facebook-powered service from Yahoo requests access to a person´s religious and political leanings as a condition for using it. Skype, the popular online phone service seeks the Facebook photos and birthdays of its users and their friends.

Yahoo and Skype say that they seek the information to customize their services for users and that they are committed to protecting privacy. “Data that is shared with Yahoo is managed carefully,” a Yahoo spokeswoman said.

The Wall Street Journal also tested its own app, “WSJ Social,” which claims to seek only basic profile information and email and requests the ability to post an update when a user reads an article. A Journal spokeswoman says that the company asks only for information required to make the app work.

Facebook is in the midst of planning for an initial public offering of its stock next month and its true value lies in the troves of personal information provided by its own users. An IPO of more than $100 billion is expected on the Nasdaq Stock Market, reports Julia Angwin and Jeremy Singer-Vine, of the Wall Street Journal.

Anthony Wing Kosner, writing for Forbes, proposes a simple, device level function for managing private data on devices and for users to be aware and in control of their mobile data in real time. These setting should be able to be applied app-by-app or globally at any time. Think of something as simple as a traffic light:

- Green Light: Open for anything. App can use my public and private data to recommend context specific content to me based on my location and can broadcast my public data to make others, who have access to that data, aware of my location.

- Yellow Light: Recommendations only. App can use my data to recommend context specific content to me based on my location but not broadcast my public data.

- Red Light: App cannot access my data at all and cannot broadcast or record my location in any way.

The idea is to make this really simple and intuitive to all users, so that they are continually reminded of the status they have selected, and only a swipe away from changing it on the fly.