May 17, 2011
With a class action lawsuit filed last week, it looks like Facebook is the latest company to come under fire for online privacy concerns.
The lawsuit alleges that Facebook has been putting together comprehensive profiles about the browsing habits of users and non-users alike, and using that data for advertising on Facebook.
How Facebook does this is fairly complex.
Facebook collects information about an individual user’s “likes” not only from its own website, but it also collects information about an individual’s browsing history outside of Facebook.
No, Facebook doesn’t put spyware per se on your computer.
Rather, Facebook can track your browsing history through the “Like” button and Facebook Connect.
These features can be found on millions of different websites, and are implemented therein as a means for the website to expand its marketing to Facebook.
It is through these devices that Facebook is able to log what websites an individual visits, when, and how often.
Facebook also collects the information regardless of whether the user actually “likes” the page he or she visits or uses Facebook Connect on the page.
In addition, the information is collected regardless of whether you are a Facebook member.
If you ever decide to join Facebook in the future, the information previously collected about you is matched up with the name that you gave to Facebook when you joined, and the info is no longer anonymous.
Lastly, if you decide to terminate your Facebook account, Facebook retains the information about you unless you make a specific request that they delete your account data.
Apple and Google have taken the most heat so far for privacy concerns; however, there seems to be a major difference between what they are doing and what Facebook is doing.
Apple and Google have been tracking information about individuals who specifically use their product or products.
For example, Google keeps a log of internet searches performed by a particular user, and Apple tracks varying pieces of information about users through their usage of particular apps.
Both of these companies are under heavy scrutiny for these activities because, most of the time, the data is collected without the user’s knowledge or consent.
Facebook is taking data collection one step further.
While Facebook also collects without a user’s knowledge or consent, it is collecting information about individuals that aren’t even using Facebook.
While the complaint is alleging violations of the California Constitution’s right to privacy provision, it brings up damage issues beyond only constitutional violations.
Aside from the monetary value of the information, the complaint brings up legitimate concerns about the possibility of this information being released to government agencies (which could make a very strong argument for bypassing constitutional concerns because the data was collected by private entities).
Case law on the subject, though, remains very underdeveloped, especially in the absence of any laws specifically on point.
With all of the recent headlines and lawsuits on this issue, it will certainly only be a matter of time before law develops on the issue.
Interested in the online privacy controversy?
Check out these past blog posts about online privacy issues: