Privacy Advocates Seek FTC Probe of Facebook Changes

Privacy advocates believe Facebook may have gone too far with some of the new features introduced with its redesign, and called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate how Facebook was using identifying data.

Concerns arose when Facebook unveiled Timeline at Facebook's F8 developer conference Sept. 22. Timeline is wider than current profiles, and more visual. Essentially, Timeline lets you tell your own life story. Facebook even lets you go back into your private activity log and pull out historical archives from your old posts.

Along with Timeline, Facebook is encouraging developers to create social apps that show what users are doing on the web on their Timeline, regardless of whether the activity is on Facebook or on another site. In order to make that happen, Facebook is allowing third-party apps to be fully integrated into users' profiles and will share information automatically on your profile.

Accusations are flying that Facebook is using cookies -- identifying bits of data set by websites into browsers to track users � even if the users are logged off of Facebook.

Privacy Advocates Complain to FTC

Reps. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, who chair the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission suggesting Facebook should be investigated for how it uses cookies. The congressmen used words like "unfair and deceptive acts."

"When people log out of Facebook, they are under the expectation that Facebook is no longer monitoring their activities," the congressmen wrote. "We believe this impression should be the reality."

The congressmen are not alone. The Electronic Privacy Information Center and 10 other privacy and civil-rights advocacy groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, Consumer Action, American Library Association and the Center for Digital Democracy, have asked the FTC to investigate Facebook.

Facebook Fixes Glitch

Facebook is not admitting to doing anything wrong. In a statement issued to the BBC, Facebook insisted there was no security or privacy breach -- Facebook did not store or use any information it should not have.

"Like every site on the Internet that personalizes content and tries to provide a secure experience for users, we place cookies on the computer of the user," Facebook said. 'Three of these cookies on some users' computers inadvertently included unique identifiers when the user had logged out of Facebook. However, we did not store these identifiers for logged out users. Therefore, we could not have used this information for tracking or any other purpose."

Facebook also said it fixed the cookies so that they won't include unique information in the future when people log out.

No comment

Is that enough to prevent an FTC investigation? The FTC has not commented on whether it will launch a formal probe.

"Facebook has always aggressively pushed the boundaries of privacy and now the chorus of complaints is loud enough to get Congress and the FTC potentially involved," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "However, the discussion should be seen in the larger context of behavioral targeting and tracking and general online privacy discussion."

Ultimately, Sterling believes, Facebook's ability to track and convey user data to third parties will be constrained, and more disclosures will be required.

"There are a number of privacy bills circulating in Congress and I suspect we'll see some online-privacy legislation ultimately," Sterling said. "In Europe, the privacy rules and culture of privacy are much more strict, and the European Commission may be more decisive in taking action against Facebook."

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