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Facebook gets poked in latest privacy gaffe

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Facebook’s privacy rules aren’t as watertight as the company would have its users believe, after the Wall Street Journal uncovered that some of the social network’s most popular apps have siphoned off personal information to ad firms and internet tracking outfits.

According to the report, many Facebook apps have transmitted identifiable details about individual users to around 25 companies, in effect breaking the terms laid down by the Mark Zuckerberg-run website.

The privacy breach, which gives advertising and internet tracking firms access to people’s names, affects a huge number of Facebook app users.

Worse still, the newspaper found that users whose profiles have rigorous privacy settings have also had their details exposed.

It said that the 10 most popular Facebook apps, including Farmville and Texas HoldEm Poker, were transmitting users’ IDs to external firms.

Game Network Inc’s Farmville was found to also be transmitting personal details about a user’s Facebook "friends" to advertisers and internet tracking companies.

Facebook, which claims to have around 500 million users of its service, told the WSJ that the social network would bring in new tech to close the breach.

One company, RapLeaf Inc, was found to have linked Facebook ID details taken from apps to its own database of internet users, which it sells on to companies.

RapLeaf insisted that the transmission of data hadn’t been intentional.

“We didn’t do it on purpose,” the company’s biz development veep Joel Jewitt told the newspaper.

The Register asked Facebook to comment on the story. It gave us this statement:

As part of our work to provide people with control over their information, we've learned that the design and operation of the Internet doesn't always provide the greatest control that is technically possible.

"For example, in the Spring, it was brought to our attention that Facebook user IDs may be inadvertently included in the URL referrer sent to advertisers.

Here, WSJ has uncovered the same issue on Facebook Platform, where a Facebook user ID may be inadvertently shared by a user's internet browser or by an application delivering content to a user.

While knowledge of user ID does not permit access to anyone's private information on Facebook, we plan to introduce new technical systems that will dramatically limit the sharing of User ID's [sic].

This is an even more complicated technical challenge than the similar issue we successfully addressed last spring, but one that we are committed to addressing. Our technical systems have always been complemented by strong policy enforcement, and we will continue to rely on both to keep people in control of their information.

It is important to note that there is no evidence that any personal information was misused or even collected as a result of this issue. In fact, all of the companies questioned about this issue said publicly that they did not use the user IDs or did not use them to obtain personal info.

Which leaves us wondering whether Facebook may have been aware of the flaw in its technology prior to the WSJ report, but just hadn't got around to closing the door on that particular privacy leak yet.

Note also that Facebook has tried to distance itself from any implication that personal information could have been used by any one of the 25 companies to which the apps transmitted the data.

The company put out a separate statement to its third-party developers that was part finger-wagging, and partly an assertion that the press had exaggerated the implications of sharing a UID.

In effect, the company is trying to downplay the whole sorry affair. The only trouble is that by admitting it needs to fix its technology to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future, Facebook just got poked. And not in a good way. ®

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