Lawmakers hit Facebook CEO with privacy questions

Congressmen send letter to Mark Zuckerberg seeking details on latest Facebook privacy brouhaha

Two members of the U.S. Congress Tuesday hit Facebook with a series of questions about the latest privacy issues surrounding the site's most popular applications.

U.S. Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Edward Markey, D-Mass., co-chairmen of the House Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier today seeking information on Facebook security features and on reports earlier this week that some of most popular applications made for the social network, such as FarmVille, Texas HoldEm Poker and FrontierVille, have been sending users' personal information to dozens of advertising and Internet monitoring companies.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that, based on its investigation, the personal information of tens of millions of users, even those whose privacy settings are at the strictest levels, has been exposed through their use of the Facebook apps.

In their letter, Barton and Markey said that "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 the nature of information these users place in Facebook's trust, this series of breaches of consumer privacy is a cause for concern. As I am sure you are aware, the Committee on Energy and Commerce is the primary House panel responsible for oversight of consumer privacy. As I am sure you also are aware, comprehensive privacy legislation is currently pending before the Committee."

The lawmakers' letter directed 18 questions at Zuckerberg.

For instance, Barton and Markey asked the CEO when the company was aware of the problem, and whether affected Facebook users have been notified that their personal information has been breached.

The lawmakers said thay also want to know what procedures the social networking site has in place to detect or prevent third-party apps from breaking the site's privacy policy.

The letter also requests that Zuckerberg disclose to the committee any agreements between Facebook and third-party app developers.

The Wall Street Journal investigation found that 10 of the most popular Facebook apps are leaking unique "Facebook ID" numbers of users to the third-party companies.

The newspaper also noted that the highly popular Farmville app, which has some 59 million users, also transmits personal information about friends of affected users to the advertising and monitoring companies.

While acknowledging that some Facebook apps transmitted user information, the company also emphasized this week that executives care about user privacy.

"We are dedicated to protecting private user data while letting users enjoy rich experiences with their friends," wrote Mike Vernal, a Facebook engineer, in a blog post Monday. Vernal also contended that the media has "exaggerated" the issue.

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 e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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