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Facebook backtracks on personal data sharing feature

20th Jan 2011
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Facebook has U-turned on plans to enable users to share their address and mobile phone number with ecommerce sites and applications following another privacy outcry.

Last year, the social networking site provider made wide-ranging changes to privacy settings, which resulted in loud criticism from both consumers and privacy experts, including the Canadian privacy commissioner, Jenny Stoddart. It was subsequently forced to radically simplify its settings.

But this latest incident relates to alterations made to its permissions process for sharing address and mobile phone numbers, which were introduced only last Friday.

Douglas Purdy, Facebook’s director of developer relations, said in a blog that the aim of the new functionality was, for example, to make it easier for consumers to share such information with a shopping site in order "to streamline the checkout process" or sign up for alerts on special deals that were sent directly to their phone.

But Graham Clulely, a senior analyst at security firm Sophos, warned that the feature could "herald a new level of danger for Facebook users" in that "shady" application developers would find it "easier than ever before" to gather more personal information.

Because consumers were sometimes so keen to access the functionality of an application, they were inclined to press the ‘accept’ button without reading the fine print - even though Facebook had introduced a dashboard that enabled them to decide what levels of access to grant the various applications for which they signed up.

As a result, Cluley said: "You can imagine, for instance, that bad guys could set up a rogue app that collects mobile phone numbers and then uses that information for the purposes of SMS spamming or sells on the data to cold-calling companies."

In response to such concerns, however, Facebook has now temporarily disabled the feature and plans to release a revamped version in the next few weeks.

Purdy said: "Over the weekend, we got some useful feedback that we could make people more clearly aware of when they are granting access to this data. We agree, and we are making changes to help ensure you only share this information when you intend to do so."

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