Facebook ducks U.S. privacy questions

Filed Under: Facebook, Featured, Law & order, Privacy, Social networks

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Identity Photogr@phy's Flickr photostreamTwo U.S. congressman have charged Facebook with evading questions on whether it tracks users for targeted ads.

Meanwhile, Facebook has gone ahead and filed a patent that enables it to do just that, all the while insisting it has no intent to track users when they're not logged into the social media network.

The congressmen, Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, and Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to look into accusations that Facebook still tracks users who've logged out, in spite of Facebook's claims to have fixed the issue.

Here's what Barton told ZDNet's Emil Protalinski about Facebook talking from both sides of its gigantic social media face:

Facebook seems to be saying one thing and doing another. In the company’s response, it talks a lot about how they don’t currently "track" users online, but they just asked for a patent that would allow them to do just that. Why ask for something you don’t ever plan on using? I don’t believe that Facebook adequately addresses that question. If they get a patent that among other things explicitly mentions tracking the information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain - how will it be used?

The patent in question, filed on Feb. 8, 2011 and granted on Sept. 22, 2011, is titled "Communicating Information in a Social Network System about Activities from Another Domain."

Uncrunched has elegantly outlined the logic flow chart thusly:

"Facebook does not track users across the web," - Facebook spokesperson, Sept. 25, 2011

"Generally, unlike other major Internet companies, we have no interest in tracking people." - Facebook employee, Sept. 25, 2011

"A method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain." - Sept. 22, 2011 Facebook Patent application

Again, Uncrunched puts it nicely: "Whoops."

On top of its wiggly response to the congressmen, Facebook also snubbed a Dec. 14 U.S. Congressional caucus meeting on privacy, the justification being, ironically enough, that the caucus wasn't private.

"The social networking giant indicated their preference to hold discussions in private," Protalinski blogged on Tuesday.

The purpose of the caucus was to explore Facebook's recent settlement with the FTC and to probe the company's plans to protect online privacy of children and teens.

FTC logoThat settlement, which came at the end of November, requires the company to submit to regular privacy audits for the next 20 years and to play straight by, among other things, giving customers "clear and prominent notice and obtaining consumers' express consent before their information is shared beyond the privacy settings they have established."

Will the FTC settlement and its required audits bring about material change to Facebook's privacy practices? It's hard to imagine it will, given how cagey Facebook is being about its privacy practices and intents with the Congressmen.

While not wanting to give away trade secrets in a public caucus may reflect defensible business smarts, Facebook just doesn't have a good track record with transparency. Perhaps a few more Congressmen getting ticked off may help to effect a move in that direction.

One can hope.

Creative Commons photo of See, Hear and Speak No Evil courtesy of Identity Photogr@phy's Flickr photostream.

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17 Responses to Facebook ducks U.S. privacy questions

  1. Julie · 832 days ago

    Sounds like Face Book is tracking it users when "off line." They are lying to everybody by the sound of it...even themselves. Good luck to the two US congressmen.

  2. Julie · 832 days ago

    There should be some "Enforced" laws regarding "Privacy". I know one is on a "Public Domain"...but still. A person should still be entitled to Privacy.

  3. jay · 832 days ago

    I believe loss of privacy is a planned event which features numbing the younger generation especially to any expectation of privacy in their daily lives. Control of information access and dispersion is a major propaganda tool predicated on loss of privacy and willingness to forego any expectation of such. With critical thinking no longer taught at most schools and obedience to authority the educational mantra, the sheeple are being prepped to become compliant consumers of force fed products and services. The political tangent also becomes obvious.

  4. Jacker · 832 days ago

    I hate Facebook really... I hope that site gets shutdown!
    Please continue bashing it with negative news stories too :)

    RIP FACEBOOK PLEASE!

    • Lisa Vaas · 831 days ago

      ya know, whenever we write about Facebook, the hits go through the roof. people are seriously passionate about it, whether in the form of loathing like yours or a type of chemical dependency mixed with aggravation (I think that's how I'd characterize my Facebook feelings). I don't like to pick on a company, most certainly not as a way to pander to the let's-get-lots-of-clicks gluttony, but honestly, it's hard to avoid writing negative news stories when news like this just keeps coming up.

      In other words, to be more concise, Yes, Jacker, thanks for the encouragement. we most certainly will keep writing negative news stories, as long as Facebook keeps producing negative news. And when/if they're the source of positive news, well, we'll be right there to cover that, as well.

      • Dee · 831 days ago

        But Lisa, does it not concern you that you are using and giving a lot of private information to a service that keeps generating negative news? Even the founder and CEO generates negative news and is on public record as not caring about users' rights to privacy?

        "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me"

  5. Thu Win · 832 days ago

    I have permanently deleted my Facebook due to the on going privacy issues.

    If anybody else want to that see: http://facebook.com/help/?faq=224562897555674

  6. Emjay · 832 days ago

    Facebook claims not to follow it's users off-line, but what about the advertisers? Either way, if you are uncomfortable with idea of being followed around, then toss your cookies, or get out of the "social" arena.

  7. I have deleted my permanently Facebook account due to the rising privacy concerns. If anybody wants to do that see http://www.facebook.com/help/?faq=224562897555674.

  8. njorl · 831 days ago

    Everyone, here, seems to be rushing to the most negative conclusion.

    Owning a patent for a mechanism does not equate to intending to put that mechanism to use. By controlling the patent at issue, Facebook may wish to impede its competitors from doing something it would rather not do itself. The effect of this would be beneficial to on-line privacy.

    • BobPro · 830 days ago

      Yes. And "The check is in the mail" and "I'll respect you in the morning" and "It's a TEMPORARY Tax". "Big Brother" is NOT altruistic. Nor is a "wannabe" like FaceBook

  9. Doodles · 831 days ago

    You know...Facebook is free. They don't charge you to use their application, and you do so at your own free will. Nobody MAKES you use Facebook. So where do they get the money to keep Facebook up and running? From the advertisers. That's who pays for Facebook. So Facebook caters to whom? The advertisers. Wanna keep your personal information private? Don't put it on Facebook. Want not to be tracked (it's not like stalking, honest!) then don't use Facebook. It's as easy as that!

    I personally love Facebook and the interaction I have with so many people. It's such an easy way to communicate with my friends and family, too. So what if they target a few ads at me because they know what city and state I live in. Maybe I'll take advantage of one of the offers they give me. Maybe I wouldn't have known about that offer otherwise.

    Tracking is up to you. If you don't want ads personalized to you, then don't include your city and state when you register. Don't put personal info on there. Or...just don't Facebook. :-)

    • G.A. · 822 days ago

      It's no longer for free. You MUST own a mobile , a credit card, driver's license or passport plus scanner to send the picture of it to FB to verify you are who you claim to be.
      You say: Don't put personal info on there. Or...just don't Facebook
      Sadly many of us started 'Facebooking' way before these privacy violation got this terrible. And not giving personal information to Facebook is out of the question.

  10. Doodles · 831 days ago

    Emjay is right. Clear your cookies and dump your browsing history every time you use Facebook, or just stay off of social sites.

  11. T. Anne · 831 days ago

    I honestly believe they already do it - I usually log-in to check up on things and log right back out... yet somehow, all of a sudden - when I started doing a lot of specific searches online, the ads on FB started to match the type of stuff I was searching for. I find that highly suspicious! If those ads were there regularly before I started looking for those things specifically, it wouldn't be... while I highly doubt this is the case - I do know that it could be argued I probably just didn't notice them since I wasn't looking for them and once I was it started to stand out... doubtful, but yes, possible...

  12. Deborah · 831 days ago

    I really think it's fair enough for them to track where I go on their site or even if I use a link from their site; but when I log out, it's no longer their business what I am doing or what sites I visit.

  13. anon · 797 days ago

    Websites such as this one are complicit in Facebook's tracking of user behavior.

    Every time you visit a website with a FB "like" button, your browser sends a HTTP request to Facebook, whether you click the button or not. If you are logged in to Facebook in another tab, then Facebook can identify you by name/FB account.

    Why doesn't Sophos remove the like buttons on there site, or implement them in a manner which doesn't allow Facebook to track its users browsing habits?

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.