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Facebook ‘Friends’ Privacy But May Not ‘Like’ It

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Don’t trust the government or Facebook to protect your online privacy, experts say.

The social-networking giant’s anticipated settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy concerns may make Facebook more polite about sharing information, but users should remain as vigilant as ever with their data, says Adam Levin, founder and chairman of advocacy group Identity Theft 911. “I applaud the FTC for cracking down on businesses misleading consumers about privacy policy changes,” he says. “But it’s only a small victory for a very large consumer and business issue.”

The settlement stems from charges that Facebook allegedly misled users about its use of their personal information, according to The Wall Street Journal. “According to people familiar with the talks, the settlement would require Facebook to obtain users’ consent before making ‘material retroactive changes’ to its privacy policies,” the paper reports.

But experts say this is a Pyrrhic victory for consumer advocates and more an issue of politeness than privacy — especially in the absence of a do-not-track law, which would regulate monitoring of people’s whereabouts, activities and purchases. Personal finance and investment blogger Andy Nyquist says the site moves at a faster pace than both privacy legislation and consumers’ understanding of technology. “Technology and the internet evolve every day,” he says. “That makes it harder for consumers to always know who their information is exposed to.”

In fairness to Facebook, online security experts say consumers use the site as a back-up for their photographs and experiences – without realizing they may be inadvertently sharing details such as their location. But Chester Wisniewski, senior security adviser at online security firm Sophos.com, says he might not have given his photographs to Facebook in the first place had he known that the company would continually change its privacy policies. “Give people the option to not accept the new policy and close their account,” he says. But also “the ability to withdraw all their information from Facebook.”

Nor can Facebook be held entirely responsible for apps that are accessible through the site, other experts say. “One concern I have is the enforcement,” Joseph Manna, community manager at marketing software company, Infusionsoft in Gilbert, AZ. “Facebook isn’t the only affected party. It’s impractical and unreasonable to require Facebook to moderate and enforce privacy practices across their 500,000-plus third-party apps.”

Facebook declined to comment on the issues raised in this story.

What’s more, few government agencies are equipped to track the use of its 800 million users worldwide. Seth Rabinowitz, partner at management consulting firm Silicon Associates, says it’s a near-impossible task. “The vast majority of users and government officials we can safely assume are relatively unsophisticated from a technology perspective versus, say, a programmer,” he says. “The terms of service and privacy declarations usually flash in front of a user right when users are anxious to access a new application.”

Privacy will continue to be eroded across most websites, experts say. Groupon recently informed customers what the site may do with users’ personal information – an innocuous phrase that usually includes a user’s birth date, shopping history, location, and lots more. Facebook has also gradually relaxed its privacy restrictions by identifying users purely by photographs. Networking site LinkedIn gave itself the authority to use members’ recommendations for commercial purposes.

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About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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