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Updated A popular Facebook application that promises users privacy in exchange for opinions on their friends is acting as a stooly by offering the information for others to buy.

The "Compare People" (account required) application has become one of the most used services on the Facebook platform since it opened to outside developers in May. It has about 475,000 users - eight percent of Facebook subscribers.

It works by presenting a pair of your friends head-to-head and inviting you to vote on aspects of their tastes, work, personality and looks. Questions include "who is more creative?" and "who would you rather sleep with?".

The sign-up page promises that those being compared will not be able to find out how you rated them. It says: "Your friends cannot find out how you compared them except when it's an innocuous compliment. For example, if someone loses a comparison, they will not know that they lost.

"If you rate/compare someone on a dating question, they won't know how you chose. There is no way for someone to look at the rank lists and see who said what about them."

Developer Ivko Maksimovic has recently begun an attempt to make money from users that appears to ride roughshod over these assurances. For a $9.49 PayPal payment, Compare People's "Premium" service (screengrab) invites you to "Improve yourself" by snooping on how your friends rated you - in what they thought was a secret ballot. Data on offer includes:

  • Who are your true friends?: see who has the best opinion of you
  • Who are your best references?: see who has the highest professional and academic opinion of you
  • Your wins and losses: a question-by-question recounting of exactly who you won and lost to

Maksimovic says the whole thing is a misunderstanding.

"We DO NOT violate anonymity and we DO NOT reveal who voted on you how, even in the premium section," he wrote in the comments section to this story. "There is a wins and losses feature that shows who you won against and who you lost against, but it goes to great pains to NOT show you who did the voting."

Maksimovic says he has suspended new sign ups of the premium service until he figures out a way to clarify exactly what information is given out. "As I said before, no anonymity is being violated, but better safe than sorry," he explains.

Yesterday witnessed an unsightly rash of ponderous stories in the national press about concerns over privacy on Facebook. This was mostly the work of Phil Space and Polly Filler, because the young firm has hired a UK PR agency who held an event on Monday that didn't yield any news. Executives including privacy chief Chris Kelly swatted away collywobbles over targeted advertising and the plan to make profiles googleable.

Compare People, however, is selling private information given over in good faith to make a quick, dirty shilling from people's insecurities.

Facebook has well covered its posterior on third-party developers and will no doubt distance itself from Compare People as soon as users begin to complain about being sold down the river. A disclaimer on application homepages reads: "Facebook is providing links to these applications as a courtesy, and makes no representations regarding the applications or any information related to them. Any questions regarding an application should be directed to the developer." ®

Bootnote

The "bait and switch" was noticed by the Sugarrae blog. Thanks to Reg reader Steve for the tip.

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