Facebook: Guess Who Controls Your Application Data?

by Ron on July 20, 2009


I was perusing the paper version of Wired Magazine over the weekend and came across an interview with Tim O’Shaughnessy (which so far as I can tell is not yet available online), who developed the Facebook LivingSocial application. This application lets you share lists of things like your favorite beers or your five favorite albums and so forth. According to the description of the application on the web site, it boasts more than 20 million users.

Oh By The Way, They Sell Your Data

What caught my eye in this interview was this: When asked what he does with the data, O’Shaughnessy, in a show of surprising candor said he goes to marketers with it.  When asked if people realize he is making money off their information, he had this to say:

“I think if something’s free, people understand there is some form of monetization involved.”

Do You Know Where Your Information Is Going?

I’m not so sure people actually do realize that Facebook application developers are selling your information to the highest bidders, and it’s worth noting and being very careful where you send your information. When you use Facebook apps on the Facebook service, your data is monitored and sold, but there are ways to prevent this. It may restrict you from using some applications, but it will prevent applications from using your data without your permission. For the record, Facebook  itself claims it doesn’t sell any information.

Adjusting Application Permissions

Just as with photos and other Facebook information, you have granular control over application settings. You can decide which of your groups gets to see the data and if it gets posted to your Wall. I have a blogging application, I use for instance that publicizes my blog posts, so I let everyone see it and post it to my Wall, but other apps, I might only let my Friends group see. You can adjust your application settings as follows:

  • Click the Settings link at the top of the Facebook page and selecting Application Settings. The Applications Settings page opens with a list of recently used applications.
  • Click Edit Settings and make your adjustments. Don’t forget Additional Settings, which lets you decide to post information from the application on your Wall or not.
  • Click Okay to save your changes.

Adjusting What the Applications See

You’re not done yet. Next, you want to control what information applications can see by default and I recommend being very conservative here and limit this information as much as possible, but not so much it doesn’t allow you to use an application. If they can see it, chances are they are going to use your data. To adjust default Application settings:

  • Click Settings and choose Application Settings. The Applications Settings information page opens.
  • Read this page carefully, then click Settings.
  • First thing, limit what data applications can access about you. I’ve limited it to Profile Picture and Basic information, which is what people can see when they search for me in Facebook. What you choose to limit is up to you, but keep in mind what O’Shaughnessy said and choose your information carefully.
  • Next, you can limit Facebook Connect applications. Review these options carefully. At a minimum, I recommend limiting Facebook Beacon by checking this check box.

These actions can help preserve your privacy on Facebook. Remember, every time you use one of those applications, chances are the developers are paying attention. You may want to act accordingly.

Photo courtesy of rponsaj on Flickr

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Morriss Partee July 20, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Thanks for this very informative post, Ron! I agree with you completely: people do NOT even think about how their data is going to be used or sold when they use Facebook applications. People simply think about it in terms of sharing this information with friends and family, and don’t give any thought to the third-party who is supplying the platform and collecting the data. Some of these type of apps could absolutely be used to hack online banking, i.e., what’s your mother’s maiden name, what was your first pet’s name, etc etc etc

2 Ron July 20, 2009 at 12:45 pm

I wasn’t even being that paranoid, but you are probably right. It’s worth noting I experimented with an application this morning and found that the default after the App asks you for permission is to share your information with Everyone. You absolutely should limit that to your friends as a minimum step.

Thanks for commenting (and for reading)

3 Tim O'Shaughnessy July 20, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Hi Ron,

Good post. I absolutely agree with your sentiment. One clarification I’d like to make about the Wired article, is that we don’t sell the data, but rather work with brands to reach users in those topic areas within the product. For example, we have several million users who have participated in our music section. We’ve worked with bands to help promote their tour schedules and new albums by placing creatives throughout the experience or creating custom Pick Your 5’s. These campaigns have not involved selling user data.

I hope that clarifies things and keep up the good work.

Tim O’Shaughnessy
CEO, LivingSocial

4 Ron July 20, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Hi Tim:
Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. I’m impressed and pleased that you found us. I stand corrected, it isn’t direct selling as I suggested, but I would still encourage Facebook users to be careful how they share their data with applications. Thanks again for leaving a comment. It was great to hear from you directly.


5 Cory March 8, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Well I for one don’t use common passwords. It would be too easy for some hacker that way, make if they want to hack me, I like to make them WORK for it. My girlfriend on the other hand has to tell the world when we go on vacation, etc. Gee thanks dear, I need the house ransacked when I get back from a trip. I still can’t get it through her thick skull, even after someone “hacked” her facebook and listed her as “single again”. Maybe it is a sign.

Leave a Comment