Facebook Allowed Automatic Data Sharing Last November

Proposed changes to Facebook’s governing documents would allow the service to automatically share certain data when users visit third-party web sites, a move drawing widespread criticism and concern. However, I took another look at changes Facebook made last year, and from what I read, the sort of behavior people are worried about is already allowed. Facebook’s current privacy policy was last revised December 9, 2009, but all of the sections referenced in this post were added on November 19, 2009.

First, let’s recap what Facebook considers publicly available information:

Certain categories of information such as your name, profile photo, list of friends and pages you are a fan of, gender, geographic region, and networks you belong to are considered publicly available, and therefore do not have privacy settings. You can limit the ability of others to find this information on third party search engines through your search privacy settings.

This also applies to content marked “everyone,” though without the search engine exception:

Information set to “everyone” is publicly available information, may be accessed by everyone on the Internet (including people not logged into Facebook), is subject to indexing by third party search engines, may be associated with you outside of Facebook (such as when you visit other sites on the internet), and may be imported and exported by us and others without privacy limitations.

The policy goes on to discuss how this applies to “Facebook-enhanced” applications and websites, which are previously defined as applications using the Facebook Platform or sites using Facebook Connect (and also notes earlier that “in order to personalize the process of connecting, we may receive a limited amount of information even before you authorize the application or website”). Here’s the relevant section, with my emphasis added:

As mentioned above, we do not own or operate Facebook-enhanced applications or websites. That means that when you visit Facebook-enhanced applications and websites you are making your Facebook information available to someone other than Facebook. To help those applications and sites operate, they receive publicly available information automatically when you visit them, and additional information when you formally authorize or connect your Facebook account with them.

In other words, the current Facebook privacy policy already allows your “publicly available information,” which includes your name, gender, geographic region, friends list, fan pages, and your content marked “everyone,” to be automatically shared with external web sites when you visit them. The only thing apparently preventing this from happening right now is technology – Facebook has not yet rolled out an official means for Facebook Connect sites to automatically access such data. Apparently they soon plan on adding that technology for certain “pre-approved” sites, an update which the newer governing documents make more explicit.

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