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Facebook Data for Sale

Shock and horror? No. Game changer? No again.

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'Facebook's privacy problems are like a centipede with footwear issues, writes Robert X Cringely. 'Other shoes keep dropping and there seems to be no end of them.'

Problems and problems - most of those 'problems' are lucrative.

Cringely reports that the people at the WSJ have been looking into what's going on.

Data Sold to Broker

Facebook admitted that application developers were paid by a data broker to turn over user information and that the developers were thereafter put on a suspension list. The apps were sending user IDs to third party marketing firms. Facebook implicated the company Rapleaf but didn't clarify the company's role.

But Rapleaf reportedly reached an agreement with Facebook whereby they agreed to destroy all Facebook user IDs and to not conduct any activity on Facebook in the future. Representatives for Facebook say there's 'zero tolerance' for data brokers: 'they undermine the value that users have come to expect from Facebook'.

New functions that share user info anonymously will supposedly be available 1 January 2011.

Verbal Vernal

Cringely followed the blog of Facebook's Mike Vernal to find out what was going on. Finally in the sixth paragraph Vernal gets to the meat of the matter.

'As we examined the circumstances of inadvertent UID transfers, we discovered some instances where a data broker was paying developers for UIDs. While we determined that no private user data was sold and confirmed that transfer of these UIDs did not give access to any private data, this violation of our policy is something we take seriously. As such, we are taking action against these developers by instituting a 6-month full moratorium on their access to Facebook communication channels, and we will require these developers to submit their data practices to an audit in the future to confirm that they are in compliance with our policies. This impacts fewer than a dozen, mostly small developers, none of which are in the top 10 applications on Facebook Platform.'

Cringely points out that data brokers could troll through Facebook for the information anyway - it's just that getting the IDs from developers is both easier and faster. But he also wants to know why Vernal doesn't reveal more. Specifically:

  • Have the people at Facebook really checked all 550,000 apps for data leaks?
  • Which application developers were selling user data?
  • Which data brokers (aside from Rapleaf) were purchasing this user data?
  • What does that six month suspension really mean? And why six months?
  • Can Rapleaf continue to scrape data from Facebook pages?
  • Where does it all end?

Cringely then quotes from the comments to his own article.

'Please check in with the Washington Times about the developer who was approaching in them [sic] in early 2008 to resell Facebook user data. I ended up at a table at a conference, as this facebook app developer was trying to sell them a contract for data. I never got his name or the app but the Washington Times' web/media team might remember him. He was specifically selling demographic information and IP addresses/locations of users to media companies so they could correlate age/sex/demographic/location for their advertisers.'

'This is why I don't use Facebook apps and discourage others from doing so', says Cringely. The same might be said of Facebook in general. Cringely doesn't think the Facebook people have a clue what's going on. That's where he's wrong.

'We believe we are taking the appropriate measures to ensure people stay in control of their information.'
 - Mike Vernal, Facebook
'Rapleaf wants every person to be able to have a meaningful, personalised online experience. To achieve this, Rapleaf helps leading businesses personalise customer interactions through deeper customer insight.'
 - Rapleaf website description

See Also
WSJ: Facebook Data Sold To Broker
Facebook: An Update on Facebook UIDs
Rapleaf: Personalising the consumer experience
InfoWorld/RX Cringely: Surprise! Your Facebook data is for sale

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