Commentary

Study: Mobile Social Networks Leak Private Info

Last summer, two researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and AT&T Labs reported on how social networks "leak" data to advertisers through referrer URLs. Now the same pair has published a new study concluding that mobile social networks leak information about users -- including, in some cases, their locations.

For the new report, researchers examined 20 "mobile social networks," including services like Facebook and MySpace that now allow access from mobile phones, sites like Flickr and Yelp, and mobile-specific services like Foursquare and Loopt. All 20 were found to leak some private information.

In some cases the data that was leaked was a unique identifier or user id, while in other instances the shared information was specific pieces of personal data. Several of the companies shared data about users' locations.

That mobile companies might be compromising people's privacy probably shouldn't be surprising, if for no other reason than that there appears to be demand for as much data about users as possible. Additionally, transmitting information about users doesn't appear to violate any laws -- at least not yet. Should the Boucher bill be enacted, companies would need people's consent to gather precise geolocation data.

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But even without specific legislation, the report could spell trouble for mobile networks. Consider, the researchers' paper from last summer was the subject of renewed attention last month, when The Wall Street Journal followed up on the study and reported that Facebook still transmitted the names of some users who clicked on ads to marketers. Since the Journal article appeared, at least three separate users have filed federal lawsuits alleging that Facebook violated its privacy policy.

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