Why the Latest Facebook Privacy Breach is Total Bunk

Last Updated Oct 18, 2010 11:24 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal continues to beat the drum over the way people's personal information is shared with advertising companies online. Today it claims Facebook breached user privacy by allowing third party applications, like Zynga's massively popular Farmville, to share sensitive user data with advertisers. Actually, most of the information highlighted in the story is already public record, and nothing Facebook did is any more reckless than what the Wall Street Journal does every day.

The Journal's main scoop is that as many as 25 apps are sending advertisers user's Facebook ID numbers.

"Facebook ID" number assigned to every user on the site. Since a Facebook user ID is a public part of any Facebook profile, anyone can use an ID number to look up a person's name, using a standard Web browser, even if that person has set all of his or her Facebook information to be private. For other users, the Facebook ID reveals information they have set to share with "everyone," including age, residence, occupation and photos.
These names and IDs are already available for every profile through a simple Google (GOOG) search. Just look up a person's name, click on their profile photo, and write down the string of numbers in their URL. That's their name and Facebook ID.

As Jeff Jarvis points out, The Wall Street Journal also shares its user's information with third party advertising networks. And according to the WSJ's Privacy Policy, "We're not responsible for the privacy practices of web sites operated by third parties that are linked to or integrated with our sites or for the privacy practices of third party Internet advertising companies."

The feeling among publishers and platforms like Facebook has always been that its better the customer doesn't see how the sausage gets made. But as the WSJ's ongoing series shows, even the mundane details of online advertising can be trumped up to sound like invasive snooping. Facebook would be well served to start educating their users to the mechanics of this industry so that the media's ominous tone doesn't dominate the conversation.

Image from Flickr user r.f.m. II
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  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.