Microsoft pulls a "Facebook" by exposing Windows Live users' names

Outcry grows over privacy violations and other snafus with Microsoft's "Wave 4" online services

Users remain outraged that changes in the privacy settings for Windows Live made in June have exposed their names and other data, with no fix in sight. Microsoft also managed to anger users of its free online services by merging friend lists from previously separate online services and by deleting data that didn't comply with revised versions of the tools.

I have to point out, it's not the fact that a relatively small number of users are vocally complaining across more than a half-dozen help forum strings that caused me to write about this. It's the fact that Microsoft pulled a "Facebook" and exposed users names and other info that was previously not visible to anyone. To be honest, I can't explain the situation any better than "Menthix" who wrote this complaint on the Windows Live Solution help forum today about it:

When I visit http://profile.live.com/details/edit/name and try to save my name without entering a last name it will say: "Please enter your last name - don't worry, you choose who gets to see it". http://rnd.menthix.net/mpl_screens/messenger-2010-beta-please-enter-your-name-dont-worry-you-choose-who-gets-to-see-it.png

This is not true (anymore)! It used to be the case in the past when there was also a checkbox whether you wanted to display your last name to the public or not. But since the "simplified" privacy settings this isn't possible anymore. As soon as someone fills in their last name it will be visible to the entire world.

On the same page there is also a http://cid-b0b41d1b6d60f22e.profile.live.com/Privacy/Advanced "Change who can see your name" link which leads to http://profile.live.com/Privacy/Advanced. I have tried everything, but the only thing which gives some kind of control over my name is "Who can find me and see my profile" which can only be set to "Friends", "My friends and their friends" or "Everyone (public)". But this really doesn't give me the control over who can see my last name, it just hides or shows my entire profile completely. And even if I set my profile to only be visible to my friends, I still have no choice at all over which of my friends (or Messenger contacts) can see my last name (if I want any of them to see it in the first place).

* Claiming users have control over who gets to see their last name is misleading and incorrect.

* Why are you forcing users to enter their last name in the first place, why not just make this field optional and make everybody happy?

What's the solution? There really isn't one, if you want to continue to IM friends and co-workers with Microsoft's instant messenger. Microsoft has combined the "friends" list in your profile page with your list of users in your Messenger friends, much the way Facebook includes a chat tool. Facebook, however, after its privacy firestorm, changed its settings so that you can limit your IM visibility to specific people.

According to Microsoft:

"With the latest release of Windows Live, there is no longer a distinction between Messenger buddies and profile friends. If you remove them as Friends, it will also remove them from being a Messenger buddy and you will no longer be able to send instant messengers to them.  You can still choose to hide all your friends from appearing on your profile, but there is not a way to do this on a per-friend basis."

But wait, there's more to upset users. The public beta of "Wave 4" of Windows Live Essentials was made available this week, prompting reader George Heindel, of Custom Computers and Technology, to check them out and tip me off to this story. (Thanks, George! If other readers have tips, please e-mail me, jbort@nww.com).

Windows Live Essentials (WLE) is a collection of some really decent online tools that offer an alternative to some of the more popular versions by Google and other online services. Difference is, with WLE, there's a client version (requiring Vista or later) so you run local instances. Reviewers generally like the tools and applauded the added features in Wave 4. These include a photo gallery for editing/sharing photos, movie maker, Family Safety settings tool, as well as the Writer blogging platform, Messenger instant messenger, and Hotmail e-mail. (There are a variety of other freebie programs under the Windows Live umbrella -- an Outlook connector, etc.)

WLE is not to be confused with Windows Live. In addition to the WLE tools, Windows Live includes a bunch of other online-only services, such as SkyDrive, free cloud storage, synch tools for synching files between different devices and so on. One of the tools in Windows Live is Windows Live Space, a free Web page where you can post your blog (written with or without the WLE blog tool, Writer), your photos, your movies, etc. Live Space was created during the days MySpace was the rage. At the time, you could make it public or limit it to be visible only to friends.

When Microsoft pushed out its next version of Windows Live in June, it affected Live Space users. In addition to the bit about the profile telling the world your last name, Live Users discovered that some of the stuff on their Web pages (gadgets) were altered. This includes any HTML comments in the guest book because the guest book no longer supports HTML.

A user named "Live User 100" in June noted a list of infuriating changes, especially, "If you allow any level of access to your profile, then your profile will now be searchable in Windows Live." He later wrote,

"The fact is WL had the best security as far as user control. The problem was never the granularity of WL Wave3 security, it was how it was implemented. Yes it was complicated for many so the correct solution in Wave4 would have been to provide a simpler security method such as your sliders AND to allow advanced security that worked like Wave3 for those technically proficient. Instead you "fixed" the problem by dumbing down all security and breaking many of your customer's security design. The problem is you are so far behind your competitors that your security now works like Facebooks USED to work. They have been enabling more security like WL had in Wave3 and you have disable those same capabilities now in Wave4... so once again you are behind the pack."

To its credit, the Windows Live Solution Center team has tried to show that the new privacy settings are actually more granular than the old ones, but because the the issues I've described, users aren't buying it.

Heindel, a security consultant, added his two cents to the conversation. He wrote on the forum.

"Having been with Windows Live services since the beta days and seen all the shortcomings of the WLTeam in design, tie in to services, and security which has been mentioned above numerous times I have  questions as well. ... Is it not time to quit fiddling with the system every so many months so as to confuse users? Why has Microsoft not learned from the failings of their partner (with an investment) Facebook concerning security?"

I might as well throw this bit of information in too: Wave 4 introduced some bugs in Hotmail. For some users, simply being logged into Messenger while trying to access their Hotmail accounts causes Hotmail to slow to a crawl. And those using something called "High Contrast display mode in Windows" may not be able to send mail at all (as if the average Hotmail user would know what that is). Microsoft is working on fixes.

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