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Facebook tracking prompts call for FTC probe

Lawmakers say Facebook user tracking 'raises serious privacy concerns'

By Sharon Gaudin, Computerworld
September 29, 2011 04:35 PM ET

Computerworld - Facebook's tracking technology has landed the social network in hot water, with two lawmakers calling for a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) wrote an open letter Wednesday urging FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz to look into Facebook's tracking of its users even after they log out of the site.

The issue came to light just days after an Australian blogger published data showing that Facebook is gathering information on the online activities of its users.

"As Co-Chairs of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, we believe that tracking user behavior without their consent or knowledge raises serious privacy concerns," wrote Markey and Barton. "When users log out of Facebook, they are under the expectation that Facebook is no longer monitoring their activities. We believe this impression should be the reality."

On Sept. 25, blogger Nik Cubrilovic had raised privacy concerns over Facebook's use of tracking cookies. "Even if you are logged out, Facebook still knows and can track every page you visit."

Cubrilovic later noted that Facebook issued a fix for the problem.

In an email to Computerworld today, Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said the company did not store or misuse any data.

"Facebook did not store or use any information it should not have," Noyes said.

"Like every site on the Internet that personalizes content and tries to provide a secure experience for users, we place cookies on the computer of the user," he said. "Three of these cookies on some users' computers inadvertently included unique identifiers when the user had logged out of Facebook. However, we did not store these identifiers for logged out users."

He also noted that Facebook did not and could not use this information for tracking or any other purpose.

Dan Olds, an analyst with Gabriel Consulting Group, however, said he's a bit dubious that the tracking of user activity by Facebook was an inadvertent mistake.

"Simple mistake? Or a 'feature' in their code that perhaps they weren't using yet, but could use to generate revenue in the future?" questioned Olds. "I tend to think it's more the latter, and another example of how Facebook has been tone deaf when it comes to user privacy."

Olds also noted that the issue of tracking users extends beyond Facebook.

"Facebook isn't alone when it comes to this kind of tracking. In fact, it's a pretty crowded neighborhood," he said.

"Some big and reputable companies have been using 'super tracking cookies' to gather info on where users' browsers have been and where they go. Some sites using this and other kinds of tracking technology are aimed at children, making it even creepier," he added.

Brad Shimmin, an analyst with CurrentAnalysis, noted that, "Google, for example, automatically added all Gmail contacts to people's Google Buzz account without asking, making Buzz an 'opt out' social network. That drew quite a bit of wrath Sadly, so long as Facebook corrects missteps such as this (as they have done in the past), I don't foresee this event creating a substantial backlash."

Originally published on www.computerworld.com. Click here to read the original story.

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