Amy Gehrt: New security concerns hit Facebook

Amy Gehrt

These days, it seems practically everyone uses Facebook. Once viewed as a fad embraced solely by college students, the social networking site’s popularity has exploded in recent years. There are now more than 500 million active users, ranging from teenagers to senior citizens.

As its popularity has grown, so have the security concerns. Most of us believe selecting the strictest privacy settings protects our personal information, but a new Wall Street Journal investigation shows that isn’t always enough.

According to a report released late Sunday, the 10 most popular apps on the social networking site — including games such as Mafia Wars and FarmVille — were all sending users’ ID numbers to outside companies. Doing so is a violation of Facebook’s rules for application providers, who are typically independent software developers.

Anyone who has the account holder’s unique ID number can easily look up that person’s account with any web browser. Those who have all of their settings on “private” may be surprised to hear their names will still show up; those who have less stringent privacy settings may also find other personal details — such as occupation, residence, age and photos — in the hands of advertisers and Internet tracking companies.

Even worse, you don’t have to be using one of those apps yourself to have your security compromised. The Journal found three of those apps were also transmitting the information of a user’s Facebook friends.

Of course, Facebook is trying to downplay the findings. Engineer Mike Vernal said in a blog post that “press reports have exaggerated the implications of sharing” a user ID number, adding, “Knowledge of a UID does not enable anyone to access private user information without explicit user consent.”

However, Facebook does acknowledge sharing user IDs is a violation of its privacy policies and, according to a spokesman, “We have taken immediate action to disable all applications that violate our terms.”

Facebook says it is working on new technology to address the issue, but in the interim there are things you can do to protect yourself. Earlier this month, the site unveiled a control panel where you can view the information categories each app requires a user to allow it to access. You can find it under the “Privacy Settings” under your Account pull-down tab.

I was astonished to realize how much of my information was “required” to be accessible by the apps I had — all were able to view my basic information, profile details, relationships, photos and even friends’ information. Needless to say, the number of my apps has been drastically reduced to just a trusted few.

Keep in mind, though, the panel will not tell you which of your friends’ applications are able to gather information about you.

So, short of deleting your account altogether or weeding out all of your friends who use even one application, you may just have to accept that for now, some of your information may not be as private as you once thought.

Amy Gehrt may be reached at