Mike Vernal, a Facebook engineer, published a blog post early Monday morning supporting the Journal’s accusations. According to Vernal, several applications on Facebook were passing on user I.D.s –– unique numbers assigned to Facebook members so that applications may identify them –– to other websites. He added, however, that it was largely not Facebook’s fault.
Vernal claimed that media reports have sensationalized the issue, and that most of the applications cited did not intend to pass on information, only doing so as a result of technical quirks with the browsers. He maintained that the site is committed to resolving the problem.
According to the Journal’s report, a large portion of the third-party websites were indeed advertising and data firms.
The issue of privacy is one that has mired the famed site since its inception, and now –– with more than 500 million users –– it has become the subject of even greater scrutiny.
The Journal’s accusation comes five months after Facebook unveiled new privacy controls following a series of complaints from privacy advocates and govern government officials who believed that user information was being shared with other companies.
Prof. Stephen Wicker, electrical and computer engineering, who teaches a freshman course that focuses on privacy issues, said that he has been advising his students to limit what they post on sites like Facebook.
“You have to treat Facebook like a billboard on Times Square,” he said. “Don’t post anything up there that you wouldn’t want the world to see.”
Wicker believes Facebook’s privacy issues should not only be attributed to problems with the company, but also to its users.
He believes users do not understand that Facebook is in the business of selling information to third parties, and that it is only up to the user to limit what is posted.
Wicker did note, however, that Facebook could do a better job of making clear exactly when users are giving over their personal information, and what external sites or companies are entitled to.
“Facebook clearly has a huge trove of data,” Wicker said. “To be honest, it’s kind of scary that they aren’t completely in control of it.”
Prof. Cliff Lampe, telecommunications, information studies and media, Michigan State University, has spent the last five years researching Facebook, and believes the issue of privacy is something the growing company will always need to contend with.
“They are in a tough spot because there is a need to innovate and keep up with trends,” Lampe said. “But at the same time they have to be on the lookout for the problems those innovations might bring.”
That said, he believes the problem should not be too hard to fix and that users of applications may not need to worry too much, as there has yet to be any convincing evidence that third parties use the information in any significant way.
Still, most students were not pleased with the idea that Facebook could potentially be facilitating the exchange of their personal information to third-party sites or companies.
“That’s disconcerting because the disclaimer leads me to believe that it would be private,” Michael Braverman ’12 said.
He added, though, that it would not necessarily stop him from using most of his favorite Facebook applications.
“I think some of them are harmless,” he said, “but I would definitely be more selective in what I use in the future.”