Canadian authorities are to probe whether Facebook is breaking privacy laws.
The privacy commissioner would seek to find out whether the popular social networking site Facebook is violating the law when it passes on sensitive personal information to advertisers and other profit-making companies without securing meaningful consent.
The move follows a complaint filed Friday by law students interning at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic alleging 21 other violations under Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).
"Much of the information shared on Facebook could be sensitive, including marital status, age, hobbies and photographs. Given the advent of cyber-stalking and cyber-harassment, the sharing of this information without express consent is especially problematic. Cyber stalkers could potentially target by age, hobbies or preferences," states the complaint.
Other alleged violations include failing to destroy the personal information of users who shutdown their Facebook accounts, failing to safeguard it from unauthorized access, failing to provide a valid opt-out consent to share personal information, and limiting its collection necessary for its stated purposes.
"Social networking involves sharing of photographs, messages and other personal information. However, the breadth of scope of what is shared is not clear," the complainants write.
The team of law students, many dedicated Facebook users, analyzed the company's policies and practices.
"We're concerned that Facebook is deceiving its users," said Lisa Feinberg.
"Facebook purports to provide users with a high level of control over their data. But our investigation found that this is not entirely true," added Harley Finkelstein.
For example, the team found that even if a user selects the strongest privacy settings, their information may be shared more widely if any Facebook Friends have lower privacy settings. As well, if users add a third party application offered on Facebook, they have no choice but to let the application developer access all their personal information even if it isn't needed.
Facebook said it looks forward to working with the Privacy Commission "to set the record straight" on the complaint.
Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has up to a year to investigate and render a decision.
A national stampede to Facebook saw Canadian users balloon from 900,000 in the fall of 2006 to more than seven million by the end of 2007. Today, a higher proportion of Canadians than anyone else in the world are on Facebook; only the United States and Britain, with much larger population bases, have more Facebook users, reports Sarah Schmidt of Canwest News Service.
.For Toronto graduate student Natalie Corbett, who joined Facebook more than a year ago, privacy issues are not a big concern for now, but that could change as the ads popping up on her profile page become more targeted. Initially the ads, peddling things such as college degrees or legal pardons for crimes, missed the mark completely. "It really didn't know me at all."
Things have changed in the last month, Corbett said.
"The ads do seem to be better tailored to me," she said of the new pitches for personal-car products. "I guess I'm proportionately concerned to the degree that they get it right. I'm not really worried yet, but I might be if they start knowing what kind of music I like without me telling them."