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Privacy furore forces partial climb-down from Facebook

Social network faces up to criticism

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Facebook's revised privacy settings have been almost universally panned by users and security watchers, but at least one group is happy - internet marketers.

A blog used by Facebook developers and marketers shows the group relishing the prospect that a lot more information is about to be shared. The only problem, for this group at least, is how to make use of this information.

Facebook rolled out new privacy settings and a configuration tool this week. Everyone who logged onto the social networking site from Wednesday onwards was prompted to update their settings, something as few as 15 per cent of user have ever done in the past.

The changes were touted as a simplification of earlier underused controls, with settings of offering up information only to friends, or to friends of friends or to everyone. But by default the controls were set to "open to everyone", even for categories of data users of the social networking site had previously labelled as private.

The automatic change to more open-settings, if accepted, means that search engines would be able to catalogue and offer up the information to all and sundry. Once exposed this data can never be reclaimed as private.

Social graph

Facebook began consulting on these changes in July, but few saw that it was heading towards share everything as a default, with the honourable exception of Cambridge University's Computer Lab.

Another privacy issue with the revamp was that it made it impossible for users to hide their friend list from being globally viewable. Cambridge University security researchers warn that a person's network of friends (AKA social graph) is arguably the most sensitive information the site holds and its exposure enables a gamut of potential scams.

"The threats here are more fundamental and dangerous - unexpected inference of sensitive information, cross-network de-anonymisation, socially targeted phishing and scams," writes Cambridge University researcher Joseph Bonneau.

"It’s incredibly disappointing to see Facebook ignoring a growing body of scientific evidence and putting its social graph up for grabs. It will likely be completely crawled fairly soon by professional data aggregators, and probably by enterprising researchers soon after. The social graph is powerful view into who we are — Mark Zuckerberg said so himself — and it’s a sad day to see Facebook cynically telling us we can’t decide for ourselves whether or not to share it."

On Friday, possibly in response to Cambridge Uni's critique, Facebook made it possible to hide friend lists on the site. Cambridge researchers remain highly critical of the "well-hidden opt-out" and the all or nothing approach to either making the list invisible or viewable to all and sundry. The previous approach - making the friends list viewable only to other friends by default was far better than the "ham-handed" changes, the academics argue.

Privacy activists including the ACLU and EFF and numerous security firms have also criticised Facebook's changes. It's hard to remember such a universally reviled change. The only precedent that comes to mind is Facebook's controversial Beacon advertising system.

The strength of opposition was such that Facebook eventually abandoned Beacon and it's tempting to speculate the social network will be forced down the same path with its privacy changes. Viewed in this context, the partial back-down on friends lists - ham-handed as it might be - is the first step on a long climb-down. ®

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