Facebook tracking prompts call for FTC probe

Lawmakers say Facebook user tracking 'raises serious privacy concerns'

Facebook's tracking technology has landed the social network in hot water, with two lawmakers calling for a Federal Trade Commission investigation of the social networking company.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) 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, "Facebook did not store or use any information it should not have."

"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 at 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?" Olds wondered. "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," Olds added. "Some sites using this and other kinds of tracking technology are aimed at children, making it even creepier."

Brad Shimmin, an analyst at CurrentAnalysis, noted that Google is one of the companies that makes use of cookies. For example, he said, the search giant "automatically added all Gmail contacts to people's Google Buzz accounts 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."

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said cookie use is an old issue, and he said people should at least be aware, if not hyper vigilant, of the tracking policies of Internet companies.

"If anyone thinks they aren't being tracked on the Web, they have clearly missed a meeting," said Enderle. "Folks should realize that their Web history can generally be reconstructed and that the best practice is to avoid doing anything on the Web you'd be embarrassed talking about."

Enderle doesn't expect that the latest Facebook brouhaha will cause users to flee the site, or lead to an immediate FTC investigation. However, if such privacy and security concerns continue to be raised, anything is possible.

"I think users have largely become numb to disclosures like this, and Facebook has promised to fix the problem," he added.

"But it builds on an impression of distrust, which eventually could result in litigation, the departure of customers for a seemingly more-secure service, or government action," Enderle said. "Both Facebook and Google are at real risk here if they don't get a tighter handle on what they do with personal information. The path they are on will eventually lead to heavy government regulation if they aren't more careful."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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