ACLU chapter flags Facebook app privacy

Northern California chapter's new campaign aims to raise awareness of the fact that not only can third-party apps on Facebook's platform access your data, they can see some of your friends', too.

The Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has put out a campaign designed to raise awareness of the privacy implications of Facebook's developer platform. It's focusing specifically on the popular "quiz" applications, like "Which Cocktail Best Suits Your Personality?" and "Which Wes Anderson Movie Character Are You?" These are largely one-time-use apps that many a Facebook user clicks on and tries out with little concern.

According to the ACLU chapter, "millions of people on Facebook who use third-party applications on the site, including the popular quizzes, do not realize the extent to which developers of quizzes and other applications have access to personal information. Facebook's default privacy settings allow nearly unfettered access to a user's profile information, including religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, photos, events, notes, wall posts, and groups." For the promotion, it's put together a quiz about how much you know about Facebook-based quizzes.

Side note: Creating a Facebook quiz app to draw attention to the pratfalls of Facebook quiz apps is very meta.

"It's time for Facebook to upgrade its privacy controls so that quizzes can only see what people want them to see," Chris Conley, technology and civil liberties fellow at the ACLU of Northern California, said in a release. "Users need stronger protections than Facebook currently provides."

So are the ACLU-NC's claims legitimate? The most damning one asserts that "regardless of whether a user's Facebook profile is 'private,' by taking a quiz the user allows its developer to gain access to the user's profile information...by Facebook default, every time one of a user's friends takes a quiz, the quiz has access to that user's profile information." That could have particularly alarming security implications if an app turns out to be malicious.

Facebook does not deny this, but notes that "sensitive" information like contact details are not available to third-party apps, and that Facebook has settings for users to tweak exactly how much their friends' apps can see.

Last month, the company modified its privacy settings to make them more user-friendly.

The ACLU chapter recommends that Facebook make it an opt-in, rather than opt-out process for apps to access a user's friends' data and require that apps list the specific profile data fields that they will be accessing.

"We generally agree with (the ACLU's) recommendations and have already made public announcements about relevant changes that are under way," Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said in an e-mail. "Specifically, we recently disabled hundreds of applications, including quiz applications, that were inconsistent with Facebook Platform policies...We've also had productive discussions with the Canadian Privacy Commissioner about improving user data controls on Platform. We'd be glad to also have productive discussions with the ACLU and generally catch them up, if they want to give us a call."

The office of the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, which has taken issue with Facebook's privacy policies , is holding a press conference on Thursday to address the subject, and Facebook plans to hold a conference call with reporters in response.

 

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