Two years ago online social networking users received a scare when they found out that photos on their profiles could be seen by the likes of college applications workers and potential employers. Recently, a report by National Public Radio has brought another privacy issue to light: third parties, such as the developers of Facebook applications, gathering information on social networking Web sites without the knowledge of the user and then selling that information to marketers.
When a user on a site such as Facebook wants to download an application to their profile, they must allow the operator of that application to access their information. The question to allow or cancel pops up every time a users attempts to download an application on Facebook, but that doesn’t guarantee that users pay attention to what they are approving.
The “Music” application asks the user to allow it to access their profile information and “other content that it requires to work.” The main concern for users is that they do not know what information they are allowing these application operators to access. Though Facebook may offer an application, they do not necessarily manage it. A third party runs many of Facebook’s applications. For example, “Music” is run by iLike in partnership with MySpace Music. Also, these third party companies are not necessarily properly regulated by Facebook or anyone else.
Facebook’s director of public policy Tim Sparapani told NPR that it is technologically possible for the writer of an application to write the application in a way that could abuse a user’s privacy. This, he said, would be a violation of Facebook’s rules and if caught, the writer would most likely face legal action.
The information gathering that these third parties do has organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and also social networking users concerned. Junior Gail Stonebarger uses applications such as “Honesty Box” and “Compare People” on Facebook and said she wasn’t aware that the operators of those applications could sell her information.
“It’s really just abusing Facebook,” Stonebarger said. “The purpose of Facebook was originally for friends to stay connected with each other, its purpose shouldn’t be to help marketers gain information on people. Nobody goes on Facebook looking to buy anything, so they shouldn’t be targeted as consumers.”
NPR’s report noted that people are more open on sites that seem less formal, making sites like Facebook where users can take “quizzes” an information gold mine. Stonebarger believes that anyone using Facebook should be more wary of what they are allowing on their profiles because they don’t know who else will see their information.
“I think people should use common sense about the applications they put on their profile because some of them are obviously a little sketch, but I think the ones made by Facebook are usually pretty legitimate,” Stonebarger said.
The groups that gather information from social networking sites are numerous. Rapleaf, a prominent information gathering database, claims to have “insights” on nearly 400 million people. They obtain these “insights” through online discussion boards, blogs, social networks, review sites and online forums. “Insights” gathered by Rapleaf may then be sold to retailers, political organizations, marketers, hotels, airlines or other groups. Those groups could, in turn, then solicit the people it has purchased information on.
However, Rapleaf does have a policy of only gathering information off of public sections of the Internet. Auren Huffman, Rapleaf’s CEO, believes that his company is necessary in today’s world.
“If we didn’t have data, our world wouldn’t work,” Hoffman told NPR. “You’d have to put money down to get like a cable television or a cell phone or any of those things that we take for granted today.”