February 4th, 2010 at 20:38 UTC by Joseph Bonneau
Facebook is rolling out two new features with privacy implications, an app dashboard and a gaming dashboard. Take a 30 second look at the beta versions which are already live (with real user data) and see if you spot any likely problems. For the non-Facebook users, the new interfaces essentially provide a list of applications that your friends are using, including “Recent Activity” which lists when applications were used. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, some users may use applications they don’t want their friend to know about, like dating or job-search. And they certainly may not want others to know the time they used an application, if this makes it clear that they were playing a game on company time. This isn’t a catastrophic privacy breach, but it will definitely lead to a few embarrassing situations. As I’ve argued before, users should have a basic privacy expectation that if they continue to use a service in a consistent way, data won’t be shared in a new, unexpected manner of which they have no warning or control, and this new feature violates that expectation. The interesting thing is how Facebook is continually caught by surprise when their spiffy new features upset users. They seem equally clueless with their response: allowing developers to opt an application out of appearing on the dashboard. Developers have no incentive to do this, as they want maximum exposure for their apps. A minimally acceptable solution must allow users to opt themselves out.
It’s inexcusable that Facebook doesn’t appear to have a formal privacy testing process to review new features and recommend fixes before they go live. The site is quite complicated, but a small team should be able to identify the issues with something like the new dashboard in a day’s work. It could be effective with with 1% of the manpower of the company’s nudity cops. Notably, Facebook is trying to resolve a class-action lawsuit over their Beacon fiasco by creating an independent privacy foundation, which privacy advocates and users have both objected to. As a better way forward, I’d call for creating an in-house “privacy ombudsmen” team, which has the authority to review new features and publish analysis of them, as a much more direct step to preventing future privacy failures.