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A Flashy Facebook Page, at a Cost to Privacy
But it is often difficult to tell when developers are breaking the rules by, for example, storing members' data for more than 24 hours, said Adrienne Felt, who recently studied Facebook security at the University of Virginia.
She examined 150 of the most popular Facebook applications to find out how much data could be gathered. Her research, which was presented at a privacy conference last month, found that about 90 percent of the applications have unnecessary access to private data.
"Once the information is on a third-party server, Facebook can't do anything about it," she said. Developers can use it to provide targeted ads based on a member's gender, age or relationship status.
Consumer advocates have voiced concerns over how software developers are using such data. The Center for Digital Democracy is urging the Federal Trade Commission to look into the privacy policies surrounding third-party applications.
Some developers acknowledge the value of the data at their fingertips but say they're careful not to abuse it.
"We don't care who their favorite musicians are, and we're not looking at their pictures," said Dan Goodman, co-founder of Loladex, an application that lets users find friend-recommended businesses, such as plumbers and pizzerias. Loladex does keep track of user-provided data, such as Zip codes.
Goodman said he hasn't ruled out using the data for targeted advertising, but "we're not trying to push the privacy envelope."
Hungry Machine, based in Georgetown, has created 25 Facebook applications, including programs that let users recommend movies, books and music.
"Leveraging that data would make a lot of sense," said Tim O'Shaughnessy, a co-founder of the company. But he said no plans are in the works.
Slide, which designed three of the most popular Facebook applications -- SuperPoke, FunWall and Top Friends -- said it uses personal details only to make applications more relevant to users. For example, Slide collects friends' birthdays so it can remind you to "poke" them on the right day.
Many Facebook users don't mind using the tools to express themselves. Gabby Jordan of Baltimore uses the Flirtable and Pimp Wars programs to connect with friends.
"If there are too many, you could easily delete them off your profile and not have to worry about it," she wrote in an e-mail.
But revealing information on quizzes or maps of places visited, for instance, may also make it easier for strangers to piece together tidbits to create larger security threats, said Alessandro Acquisti, assistant professor of public policy and information systems at Carnegie Mellon University.
Some online activities ask users to list pets' names or to display their high school's mascot, answers to common security questions asked by financial companies.
"Nowadays, some people have downloaded so many [applications], it's a constant flow of information about what they've done, what they're doing, which can be mined by your friends and also by someone you don't know anything about," he said.