The Wall Street Journal is reporting from their series What They Know that, as a result of investigation, found Facebook apps sharing and selling information to advertisers that could identify users. The series has an alarmist tone but different factors are leading others to questions the authenticity of the article that focuses on Facebook.
Here are some selections from the Wall Street Journal: Facebook in Privacy Breach.
The Journal found that all of the 10 most popular apps on Facebook were transmitting users’ IDs to outside companies.
The apps, ranked by research company Inside Network Inc. (based on monthly users), include Zynga Game Network Inc.’s FarmVille, with 59 million users, and Texas HoldEm Poker and FrontierVille. Three of the top 10 apps, including FarmVille, also have been transmitting personal information about a user’s friends to outside companies.
The information being transmitted is one of Facebook’s basic building blocks: the unique “Facebook ID” number assigned to every user on the site. Since a Facebook user ID is a public part of any Facebook profile, anyone can use an ID number to look up a person’s name, using a standard Web browser, even if that person has set all of his or her Facebook information to be private. For other users, the Facebook ID reveals information they have set to share with “everyone,” including age, residence, occupation and photos.
The apps reviewed by the Journal were sending Facebook ID numbers to at least 25 advertising and data firms, several of which build profiles of Internet users by tracking their online activities.
Defenders of online tracking argue that this kind of surveillance is benign because it is conducted anonymously. In this case, however, the Journal found that one data-gathering firm, RapLeaf Inc., had linked Facebook user ID information obtained from apps to its own database of Internet users, which it sells. RapLeaf also transmitted the Facebook IDs it obtained to a dozen other firms, the Journal found.
The fact that this affects even those with the strictest privacy settings that Facebook allows means that there is nothing more users can do to protect their privacy. But Facebook isn’t sitting idly by with the attention this topic is getting.
“A Facebook user ID may be inadvertently shared by a user’s Internet browser or by an application,” the spokesman said. Knowledge of an ID “does not permit access to anyone’s private information on Facebook,” he said, adding that the company would introduce new technology to contain the problem identified by the Journal.
In addition to a technical solution, Facebook has also been cracking down on apps that have been violating policy.
Facebook also appeared to have shut down some applications the Journal found to be transmitting user IDs, including several created by LOLapps Media Inc., a San Francisco company backed with $4 million in venture capital. LOLapp’s applications include Gift Creator, with 3.5 million monthly active users, Quiz Creator, with 1.4 million monthly active users, Colorful Butterflies and Best Friends Gifts.
Since Friday, users attempting to access those applications received either an error message or were reverted to Facebook’s home screen.
“We have taken immediate action to disable all applications that violate our terms,” a Facebook spokesman said.
Not everybody is in agreement with the Wall Street Journal’s shouting fire in a crowded theatre approach though. Some of those in disagreement include Jeff Jarvis and Forbes blogger, Kashmir Hill. Some might argue the approach is a bit biased since the parent company of WSJ, NewsCorp., also owns Facebook competitor MySpace but gets no mention of its participation in the same practice.
Concluding the Forbes blog on the piece, Did the Wall Street Journal Overreact to Facebook Privacy ‘Breach’?:
The so-called “Facebook privacy breach” is “definitely not a conspiracy,” tweeted Blodget at Jarvis. “If anything, it’s an error. But probably not even that. Just ‘new’.”
To which Jarvis responded, “But WSJ treats it as scandal. There lies the conspiracy, methinks.”