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Timothy B. Lee

Timothy B. Lee

Timothy B. Lee covers technology policy, including copyright and patent law, telecom regulation, privacy, and free speech. He also writes about the economics of technology. He has previously written for Ars Technica and Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter or send him email.

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Brian Fung

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Andrea Peterson

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government. She also delves into the societal impacts of technology access and how innovation is intertwined with cultural development.

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Posted at 10:42 AM ET, 09/26/2011

Privacy advocates oppose Facebook changes

Facebook’s future plans and tweaks have left some users confused and privacy advocates on edge. (Thierry Roge - Reuters)
Users and privacy advocates have reservations about Facebook’s planned redesign, the way the change will affect third-party apps and the network’s general approach to privacy.

Third-party apps will be fully integrated into a user’s profile page, with updates about activity on each app. That means that users won’t actively click to share updates from apps — the apps will add that information to a user’s page automatically.

With this change, users will have to think more carefully about what apps they use, since their private media consumption, exercise routines and other habits could be automatically published on their profiles.

On Sunday, self-proclaimed hacker Nik Cubrilovic accused Facebook of using cookies to track users while they are logged off, something Facebook engineer Gregg Stefancik denied in a comment on Cubrilovic’s post. Stefancik confirmed that Facebook alters rather than deletes cookies when users log out as a safety measure, but said the company does not use those cookies to track users or sell personal information to third parties. He also said that the company does not use cookies to suggest friends to other users.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that the organization is opposed to changes made to the Timeline, Facebook’s newly designed profile page. Acting as a sort of digital scrapbook, the Timeline now shows all the information a user has put on Facebook in chronological order. The new format changes rules about how information is accessed, Rotenberg said, adding that the problem is that this has happened after the company has already acquired user data. EPIC is preparing a letter to the Federal Trade Commission about the changes, he said. The organization has led the charge calling for the agency to look into Facebook’s privacy policies.

The change in format is also confusing to many users. Pam Dixon, executive director at the World Privacy Forum, said the nonprofit has heard from several consumers who don’t understand how their privacy settings will work. In an attempt to make privacy controls more granular, Facebook has made it an option for users to set privacy limitations on every post, which also apply to its associated likes and comments.

Users can set up the baseline sharing settings for their account in their personal privacy settings, but many users don’t understand how and why sharing settings are being set by default, Dixon said. Facebook users who’ve contacted her group also have said that they are concerned about how privacy settings are set up for opt-in third-party apps and whether or not they’ll be able to delete their data from an app if they decide they no longer want to use it.

Understanding privacy settings on Facebook accounts is particularly important, Dixon noted, since the Federal Trade Commission has made it clear that it’s fine for employers to look at social media profiles as part of background checks for potential employees.

Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy said one of the main problems users and regulators have with Facebook is that the company makes frequent changes to its network. “Facebook is such a moving target that hardly anyone can keep up,” he said.

By  |  10:42 AM ET, 09/26/2011

Tags:  Facebook, privacy

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