Everyone was up in arms this week after the Wall Street Journal reported that some of Facebook's popular applications—Farmville and others—had been transmitting identifying information to Internet tracking companies.
U.S. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairmen of the House Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (who was already up to his hoodie in media scrutiny due to The Social Network movie.) An onslaught of articles from media scrutinizing Facebook's latest privacy slip-up flooded the Internet. And Facebook users freaked, which is only natural in the culture of fear that Facebook seems to have created.
But is this latest "privacy breach" really that big a deal? Is it time to throw in the towel on social networking and delete your account? Some security pundits might say yes—"it's just one more error Facebook has made with your information"—but let's take a closer look at the two claims causing the most controversy.
1. Your information was stolen.
The "identifying information" that the WSJ reports was scraped from tens of millions of accounts, in many cases, is already public data. This includes your Facebook ID number, which anyone can use to look up your name via search engines even if you have set all privacy settings to private. (One way around this is disabling the "public search" feature, which can be found in your privacy settings.) If you selected any information to be viewed publicly, this information can also be viewed by searching your Facebook ID number.
If you have opted out of appearing in public searches, anyone (i.e. more than 500 million people) with a Facebook account can view your name, picture, gender and networks anyway. There's no getting around that.
2. Your information was sold.
WSJ claims that data-gathering firms such as RapLeaf linked Facebook user ID information to its own database of Internet users, which it sells. It also transmitted the IDs to other firms, as well. Is that a big deal? TechCrunch's Michael Arrington put it this way:
"If you do stuff online, people are tracking it and putting it into a database and trying to sell you stuff based on that. There’s not much you can do about it except not be online. And it’s not all that bad, really, to get ads for diapers when you’re having a baby, or ads for cars when you are looking to buy a car. Life will go on."
[Want more tips, tricks and details on Facebook privacy? Check out CIO.com's Facebook Bible.]
Privacy snafus are becoming commonplace with Facebook, which isn't right, but is a reality. Facebook is aware of its problems. It's taking steps to win back the trust of their users. And as Facebook users, we need to be aware of how to stay safe when we're on the site.
Undoubtedly, Facebook will stumble again. In the meantime, do what you can to protect yourself: Familiarize yourself with the privacy controls. Practice common sense. Above all, be careful of what you post.
Kristin Burnham covers Consumer Technology, SaaS, Social Networking and Web 2.0 for CIO.com. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kmburnham. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org.