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Facebook to encrypt user IDs to block 'inadvertent sharing'

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Facebook has introduced plans to encrypt user IDs in a move seemingly designed to placate critics following recent privacy kerfuffles.

The social network prohibits the sharing of user IDs with data brokers in its privacy policies. However, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that personally identifiable information was shared by developers of some of the most popular applications on Facebook, such as FarmVille and Texas Hold 'Em, despite this policy. The story broke just as US politicians are considering a potential Congressional inquiry into Facebook, so the timing could hardly be worse for the social network, ReadWriteWeb reports.

This is also bad news for Zynga, maker of six of the top 10 Facebook games. The game developer has been hit by a federal lawsuit accusing it of pimping Facebook user IDs to advertisers and data brokers.

The actual harm that might be done if a user's Facebook ID is exposed is debatable. Nonetheless, Facebook has responded to a further round of adverse publicity over its privacy policies by introducing a proposal to encrypt user ID information in URLs.

The social network said the approach addresses Facebook's end of a wider industry problem and prevents the accidental disclosure of user IDs by developers. "While this proposal will address the inadvertent sharing of this information on Facebook, the underlying issue of data sharing via HTTP headers is a web-wide problem," it said.

Facebook wants to offer parameter encryption as an option to developers over the next few weeks, before bundling the technology in its software development kits. The social network said it wanted to work with the web standards community and browser vendors in developing a more compressive approach to tacking the issue.

Parameter encryption, assuming it is widely accepted by developers, might make it trickier to track the activities of users on Facebook by the likes of intelligence agencies (irrespective of whether they do this with a warrant or not), something that might put a spanner in the works of Facebook's cunning plan.

Whether or not the plan comes together in its present form, it is wise to remember that user data is the product Facebook sells to its real customers, advertisers. As such, the company will always be pushing users to open up more and share information - because that is what adds value to the data on its books. ®

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