Facebook ‘Frictionless Sharing’ Raises Privacy Issues

The privacy implications of Facebook’s frictionless sharing for social apps are causing concern among experts

Facebook raised eyebrows when it unveiled Timeline at its F8 show on 22 September, sparking concern about whether users will appreciate having their life stream of events packaged on one page, a digital dossier for friends and others.

But it’s the social network’s “frictionless sharing” practice that has ignited fears among privacy advocates. The Electronic Information Privacy Centre (EPIC) teamed with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Centre for Digital Democracy and others to complain in a detailed letter to the Federal Trade Commission that Facebook may be engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices with its new sharing tools.

Automatic access

In frictionless sharing, certain applications users access automatically share users’ activity so that users don’t have to click the “Like” button to share each interaction they had with the app with their friends on an individual basis.

Users who click “Add to Timeline” on any app will grant the app permission to share their activity with their Facebook friends.

For example, users who agree to use the Spotify music app will see “stories” about their music listening activities shared on their Ticker and Timeline for all to see. This also goes for TV shows users watched via the Hulu app, as well as news articles read using The Washington Post Social Reader app.

This potentially affords Facebook advertising partners a tremendous brand platform. Over time, this aggregate information could be super valuable for companies wishing to hawk their own related products to consumers on Facebook.

“These changes in business practices give the company far greater ability to disclose the personal information of its users to its business partners than in the past,” EPIC and its cohorts wrote in their letter. “Options for users to preserve the privacy standards they have established have become confusing, impractical and unfair.”

Facebook, whose chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has famously pushed his notion that people want to share lots of personal information about themselves, is sticking to its approach:

“Some groups believe people shouldn’t have the option to easily share the songs they are listening to or other content with their friends,” Facebook told eWEEK in an email. “We couldn’t disagree more and have built a system that people can choose to use, and we hope people will give it a try. If not, they can simply continue listening and reading as they always have.”

While this would appear to smack of arrogance from a company insisting users want to share information as effortlessly and quickly as possible, Facebook pointed out that people who subscribe to its social applications will have complete control over whether they’re info is shared or not.

Total control

That is to say, the automatic sharing is on by default in the social apps, but Facebook allows users to control whether their app stories are seen by their friends at all times.

“They can choose not take the action on Facebook, remove it from their Timeline, delete it completely, change their privacy settings, or disconnect from the app at any time,” Facebook added. In the case of protecting social app info, when users decide to add an app to their Timeline, they may click the custom option to hide their activity from their friends.

With Facebook’s privacy defense duly noted, Pete Cashmore, founder of the world’s top social media blog, Mashable wrote:

“Just a few days ago I added the Washington Post Social Reader app to my profile… Later, I returned to the app, forgot about that feature, read a ton of articles and realised they were all on my Facebook Timeline,” Cashmore wrote. “Now I didn’t read anything particularly saucy like my HuffPo friends did, but even that slight lapse was enough for me to uninstall the app completely.”

The fact that the social app discomfited a pioneering social media blogger enough to prompt him to uninstall the software speaks volumes about the potential for Facebook’s new social sharing features to go awry in the accounts of far less savvy consumers.

EPIC and its partners have other complaints with Facebook, which they allege is engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices.

The parties noted how a researcher recently discovered Facebook has used cookies to continue tracking users even after they logged out of the social network. The cookie, said the privacy groups, housed information about the user’s identity and reported it back to Facebook until the user closed his or her browser window.

Facebook acknowledged the flaw, which was detected by blogger Nik Cubrilovic. However, Facebook also noted it did not store these identifiers for logged out users. “Therefore, we could not have used this information for tracking or any other purpose.”