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Facebook users may no longer be able to hide after the website announced it is launching a service that enables anyone to view member profiles.

In a major move, the social networking site said on Wednesday that it intends to make a limited public listing service available to people who are not logged in to Facebook, meaning that non-members will be able to look for friends or acquaintances via a search box on the Facebook home page. Information contained in the listing service will also be accessible via search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and MSN Live.

The announcement marks a significant policy change for Facebook, which, unlike other social networking sites, has previously denied the major search engines access to information on its members.

In an entry on the Facebook blog, site engineer Phil Fung claimed that the move would make it easier for people to see which of their friends are members of the site. He also downplayed the importance of the decision to open up information to the general public.

"The public search listing contains less information than someone could find right after signing up anyway, so we're not exposing any new information, and you have complete control over your public search listing," said Fung. Facebook also told users that "public search listings may only include names and profile pictures".

Facebook is to begin notifying its members of the decision over the next month and users will be able to keep their listing private if they wish by changing their search settings on the 'Search Privacy' page. Members will only appear in searches outside Facebook if their search settings are set to 'Everyone'.

"In a few weeks, we will allow these public search listings (depending on users' individual privacy settings) to be found by search engines like Google, MSN Live, Yahoo!, etc. We think this will help more people connect and find value from Facebook without exposing any actual profile information or data," added Fung.

Founded in February 2004 by Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook has an estimated 39 million active members.

However, while it has plenty of followers, Facebook has also attracted controversy in the past due to privacy concerns and such worries will no doubt intensify following the launch of the new public listings service.

Last year the website introduced new features that instantly notified users of their friends' activities on the network. But Facebook found itself having to backtrack furiously when an estimated 600,000 members staged an online protest over the "News Feed" and "Mini-Feed" functions. Following the backlash, Facebook reversed its decision and introduced new privacy controls that allowed users to block the features.

That said, a study issued last month found that Facebook members themselves were somewhat careless about safeguarding their privacy. IT security firm Sophos found that 41 percent of Facebook users surveyed were willing to give personal information - such as e-mail address, date of birth and phone number - to a complete stranger, greatly increasing their susceptibility to ID theft.

In the majority of cases, Sophos was able to gain access to respondents' photos of family and friends, information about likes/dislikes, hobbies, employer details and other personal facts. In addition, many Facebook users also disclosed the names of their spouses or partners, while several included their complete resumes, and one user even divulged his mother's maiden name - information often requested by websites in order to retrieve account details.

The Facebook blog is here.

© 2007 ENN

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