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10/19/2010
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Congressmen Poke Facebook Over Privacy Breaches

Reps. Markey, Barton demand answers on what the social network knew about unauthorized disclosure of user ID numbers and what it plans to do about it.

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In response to the recent revelations of another privacy breach at Facebook, Congress is again asking questions of the social media giant.

U.S. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) on Monday sent Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg a letter pressing the company to release more details about the way in which applications handle user information. The two congressmen were prompted to act after results of Wall Street Journal investigation discovered privacy breaches affected tens of millions of users, even those who adjusted their settings to the strictest settings possible.

All 10 of the most popular apps on Facebook shared Facebook members' user ID numbers (UIDs) with outside companies, and three of the top 10 Facebook apps, such as Farmville, shared information about users' friends, too. In a post to its developer blog on Sunday, Facebook downplayed the privacy impact, even as it promised to take steps to prevent reoccurrences.

But the two politicians want more. Barton is a ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Policy, and Markey is chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee.

"Given the number of current users, the rate at which that number grows worldwide, and the age range of Facebook users, combined with the amount and nature of information these users place in Facebook's trust, this series of breaches of consumer privacy is a cause for concern," the legislators wrote. "As I am sure you are aware, the Committee on Energy and Commerce is the primary House panel for oversight of consumer privacy. As I am sure you are also aware, comprehensive privacy legislation is currently pending before the Committee."

Markey and Barton asked Facebook to respond to 18 questions by Oct. 27. The congressmen's questions include the number of users impacted by the privacy breaches; the specific nature of the data transmitted from the third-party applications; when Facebook knew of the breaches; whether or not Facebook notified users of the breaches; which Facebook terms were violated; the number of third-party applications in violation; the procedures and guidelines Facebook has in place to detect and prevent this type of breach; whether similar breaches have occurred in the past; whether Facebook receives remuneration of any kind as a result of data-sharing with ad or tracking companies; whether Facebook will proactively seek the deletion of users' personal information from Internet and ad companies' databases; the extent to which minors' information was breached; the extent to which medical and financial data was breached, and any policy or procedural changes Facebook plans to ensure users have better control over their data and over their use of third-party apps, according to the letter.

Facebook responded over the weekend by blocking access to one game developer, Lolapps, but restored access shortly thereafter.

"Press reports have exaggerated the implications of sharing a UID," wrote Facebook engineer Mike Vernal. "Knowledge of a UID does not enable anyone to access private user information without explicit user consent. Nevertheless, we are committed to ensuring that even the inadvertent passing of UIDs is prevented and all applications are in compliance with our policy."

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