Facebook: Think Benefits vs. Risks Before Sharing Mobile Numbers

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facebook_small.jpgADOTAS – Maybe I’m just burned out on Facebook privacy scandals, but I haven’t been able to get any bile up about the social network’s plans to share data such as phone numbers and addresses with third-party developers. The main reason is because what Facebook is planning is all opt-in — many past privacy policy updates switched up users’ default privacy settings to share a lot more information than they intended.

That’s part of the reason CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg got a reputation as an arrogant jerk (well, that and because he’s left a trail of jerk moves in his wake as he climbed to the top of the social networking tower) — he assumed user feelings about sharing data were directly in line with Facebook’s revenue goals.

Strangely enough, the scathing caricature of Zuck in “The Social Network” (which easily was the best film of the year — SPOILERS AHEAD) seems to have redeemed him — probably because at the end of the movie, his doppelganger actually seems remorseful and wants a fresh start. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was right — it is a hopeful ending.

Because maybe the film got to me (I’m a sucker for antiheros), I’m willing to give Zuck a clean slate, especially since Facebook’s last few privacy updates seemed to put user concerns front and center. Anyway, my ire is too focused on Google’s search monkeys at the moment.

While I’m not outraged about Facebook’s plans to enable users to share phone numbers and addresses with third-party developers, I think Zuck and crew could grab major kudos from users, privacy advocates and the government if it killed the program.

I mentioned in an earlier column that I snorted when Facebook asked for my mobile phone number. Supposedly doing so would offer me more “security” — riiiiiiiiiiight… It’s more of a convenience thing (potentially), same as sharing such data with developers — Director of Developer Relations Douglas Purdy explained that users could streamline the checkout process on mobile retail sites and receive alerts or deals through messaging.

After it was announced in January, the program was quickly suspended as Facebook sought a clearer way to explain how it would work to users. Two congressmen sent Zuck a letter demanding answers to questions that had already seemed to be answered, which seems to be all the U.S. House of Representatives is good for these days… Besides dissecting the federal budget.

When Facebook relaunched the project a few weeks ago, the normal privacy furor went off in the media, so of course the government had to get a shot in. Four Democratic senators — Al Franken, Chuck Schumer, Sheldon Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal — have sent Zuck a letter asking Facebook to shelve the program for good as the dangers of data leakage outweigh any convenience it could offer. In particular, identity theft could become frighteningly easy if such PII data fell in the wrong hands.

“Combined with a targeted Google search, these two pieces of information can allow someone to obtain almost all of the information necessary to complete a loan or credit card application,” the senators write. “It is hard to contemplate all of the different ways in which this information could be abused.”

Facebook’s response was a bit off target: “Despite rumors, apps and external websites cannot access a user’s address or phone number from Facebook without that user’s permission. People are always in control of what information they share through our service.”

Well, that’s not at issue — what’s concerning is whether those third-party app developers can secure the data. Considering the slew of major websites hacked for user data this year alone (let’s say I’m glad I’m not a fish in the pond), can smaller third-party developers promise better security when they have more precious information? Can even mammoth Facebook keep tabs on such data when Zuck’s own fan page was hacked not so long ago?

Then again why do developers even need phone numbers and addresses? Apps on mobile phones can bypass text messaging with push notifications. Users can simply check in using location-based services (there’s already been a kerfuffle about some mobile apps sharing this data without permission) — there’s no need to give up a physical address unless you feel like receiving snail mail from an app.

Sure, these senators are being overprotective parents, but mom and dad make a good point: are the benefits of sharing user phone numbers and addresses worth the potential risks?

In other words, should Facebook endow users with this option? As I frequently write on this site, user ignorance and impulsiveness are the roots to just about all social media calamities. Zuck and crew may want to heed the senators’ advice and show their concern over user data by forgetting about it completely.

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