Does Timeline Breach Facebook FTC Settlement?

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Facebook security and privacy issues have been the focus of a number of my blog posts, since it doesn't take much for an identity thief to gather a wealth of information from an unguarded Facebook account.  Even those who have their Facebook profiles restricted sometimes found themselves sharing more than they wanted to because of the way Facebook allowed applications to bypass user settings.  Just using a very basic application in many cases gave the application full access to pretty much everything on the user's profile, allowing the app to publish user information and send the user emails even if the user had disabled this on his profile. Watch for this to become a bigger issue as Facebook rolls out their new "Timeline" feature --a feature that will allow anything you ever posted to appear in your profile  Timeline --unless you specifically block items from appearing within 7 days of upgrading.

Facebook will eventually upgrade everyone to the Timeline feature. Privacy experts are warning users that Facebook will eventually upgrade everyone to the Timeline feature whether users opt in or not. And that's what some privacy advocates say appears to violate the recent FTC Settlement Agreement requiring Facebook to obtain a consumer's approval before changing the way they share data. 

When it was apparent that Facebook's privacy practices were not just irritating users but keeping privacy advocates busy and concerned, the Federal Trade Commission took a closer look at how Facebook handled consumers' data. The FTC's seemed to be in agreement with the privacy advocates who had been warning that Facebook was playing too fast and loose with user privacy --and stepped in to stop it.  Just recently, both the FTC and Facebook agreed to a settlement, that in part, is said to require Facebook obtain consumer approval before changing the way they share their users' data.

Though privacy advocates were hopeful that any Agreement would result in a complete revamp of how the Facebook handles (or mishandles) user data and their expectations of privacy --they remained skeptical as to whether or not it was really going to make much of a change. In light of Facebook's decision how they would roll out Timeline --it appears their skepticism was justified.

According to the terms of the FTC  settlement, Facebook, and apps hosted on the site, would be required to offer the option to opt-in to actions that would override the user's security settings. Now comes the issue of the Timeline feature --which doesn't allow users that opt-in -option.

Additional terms of the settlement also requires Facebook to remove any information and pictures from closed accounts within 30 days instead of keeping them indefinitely, and requires them to establish a new privacy policy that has its users' best interests in mind.  To ensure that these terms are being met, Facebook will have to hire an independent auditor within 180 days to examine its privacy policy and will undergo similar examinations every two years until 2032.

Will the advancement of the "Timeline" feature, will the settlement really make that much of a difference?  It's too early to tell, but some privacy advocates point out that some signs point to "no." The "opt-in" clause won't apply to any policy updates that Facebook makes, and given how often Facebook makes changes that expose user information and activity there will likely still be a lot of information being tossed around freely. 

Some of the higher-ups at Facebook are also already playing down the privacy concerns that brought about the settlement in the first place, too.  Company COO Sheryl Sandberg has made comments in interviews about how clearly security warnings are labeled in apps and on the site, making it seem as though only a small percentage of users are confused by the way that Facebook presents this information. Additionally, Facebook reps have noted that users shouldn't have any expectation of privacy when using the site --because the info is already published on the Facebook site --and Facebook has the right to alter how that info is displayed.

These ongoing privacy rights vs. public information dynamics should make at least one thing crystal clear; before posting anything on Facebook or any other social networking site, take a moment to stop and think about it. A good rule of thumb is to treat everything you post as if it will be accessible to the world. Whatever you post on the internet is indelible --it can brand you much the same way that tattoo does. It's not easy to disguise and even more difficult to get rid of. Even though the Facebook FTC settlement sounds good on paper, it's important that you don't let your guard down when it comes to Facebook privacy.

Check your security settings after every website upgrade to make sure they haven't changed, be careful what information you share with others and don't accept friend requests from people you don't know.  It would be wonderful if this settlement brought about real changes in the way Facebook handles your privacy, but it's still important that you keep yourself safe in case it doesn't.  
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