Facebook's New Mobile Software Raises Privacy Questions

Facebook's new mobile software, Facebook Home, is already raising the hackles of privacy activists, who say the company's poor record is cause for concern.

“From a privacy perspective, Facebook is an unstable platform for a communication service,” Electronic Privacy Information Center president Marc Rotenberg says in an email to MediaPost. “The company changes privacy settings of users too frequently. And in the U.S. there are too few legal safeguards for users."

The new product is similar in some ways to existing Facebook apps, but is more deeply integrated with the operating system. The new software runs on Android and the AT&T network; at launch, it will only be available through HTC, which is rolling out a new Facebook-branded device.

The device's home screen, now called Cover Feed, will be the Facebook news feed. Facebook doesn't currently plan to show ads on the Cover Feed -- though observers think it's only a matter of time. The phones also will be able to transmit location data to Facebook through GPS and WiFi capabilities -- though people can always turn those features off.

The Facebook-branded devices also will come with a new “app launcher” -- which probably is the most significant difference between the Home app and previous Facebook mobile apps. With this feature, Facebook will be able to learn which other apps users download, and how often they use those apps.

Facebook said today that it intends to log some data connected with the app launcher, though only from a small, randomized rolling group of users. Whether that poses a privacy risk yet isn't clear. That question will probably depend on how Facebook intends to use that information -- which we don't yet know.

But if history is anything to go by, there's reason to be wary. Consider the company's record of sharing information in ways that users couldn't have expected: In 2007, Facebook thought it would be a good idea to tell users about purchases made by their friends. Two years later, Facebook decided to change everyone's default privacy settings. Next, the company rolled out “instant personalization,” which by default shared users' names with Pandora and other partners. And that was all intentional. Facebook also was caught accidentally leaking users' names to advertisers by passing along referrer headers.

Given this pattern, it makes sense that any new product tied to a mobile device is raising alarms. Hopefully, this time Facebook won't decide to use any new data it's able to gather in a way that betrays users' trust.

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