Facebook will move forward with a plan to allow third parties to access the personal data of users, the latest in a series of moves drawing controversy over the privacy of its massive consumer base.
The feature will permit applications to seek the private data of Facebook account holders, such as phone numbers and home addresses. The company appears to be acting within its rights, according to PC World magazine.
The social networking giant quietly enabled the feature in January, but suspended it a few days later after a backlash from users, intending to bring it back in an improved manner.
In a letter responding to concerns raised by Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX), Facebook said two weeks ago that the feature would return in a way that seeks to emphasizes permission from users before third parties gain access to their personal information.
“We expect that, once the feature is re-enabled, Facebook will again permit users to authorize applications to obtain their contact information,” the organization wrote, adding that it was “evaluating methods to further enhance user control.”
As it has grown, Facebook has in recently years encouraged users to share data more openly. It has been criticized for gradually liberalizing its privacy settings in a way that less savvy users would not know to make adjustments in order to protect themselves from unwilling access to their information.
The new feature raises similar concerns about unintended consequences, as users can inadvertently provide scammers their personal data with a few arbitrary clicks, which may then be sold to marketers or used in identity theft frauds.
“I’m pleased that Facebook’s response indicated that it’s looking to enhance its process for highlighting for users when they are being asked for permission to share their contact information,” Markey said. “I look forward to monitoring the company’s work in this area.”
Yet it raises the question: for what legitimate purposes might an application desire the personal data of Facebook users?
Privacy experts told the Huffington Post that a gap between the expectations and reality of Facebook usage could leave some users in the dark about the consequences of certain applications and features.
“People never thought when they were posting this data [such as their phone numbers] that it would be accessible to anyone but friends. There’s a real mismatch of expectations around that,” Mary Hodder, chairman of the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium, told the website. “Even if Facebook comes back with new protections, they’re still saying, ‘Hey, get over it, your data is public.’ I feel sad for users that Facebook’s approach is ‘You give us anything and it’s all fair game.'”