Experts: Facebook users' privacy threatened by new features

Facebook has introduced a few features in recent months, including the new Facebook Home software. And experts have many Facebook Home privacy concerns.

After much anticipation — and rumors that Fabebook was getting ready to launch its own mobile operating system — the company on April 5 announced Facebook Home, its new software for Android devices.

What is Facebook Home? Essentially, it”s a launcher, or a software wrapper, that modifies an Android device”s homescreen to put Facebook”s functions front and center. For example, the launcher will set photos from Facebook as the phone”s background, as well as display status updates and notifications and integrate Facebook messaging into the phones”s normal operations.

The company announced the software would be available on April 12 for five devices — the HTC One X, HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S III and Samsung Galaxy S IV — and come preinstalled on the upcoming AT&T HTC First. However, a beta Facebook Home APK leaked a few days before that launch.

While fans of the social networking site may be excited to add new functionality to their smartphones, some IT security experts say there are enough Facebook Home privacy concerns that users should think twice before installing it — and that IT managers should consider banning Facebook Home on corporate-issued phones or devices brought to work through a BYOD program.

Facebook Home privacy implications

There”s a lot we still don”t know about Facebook Home — and that”s a big part of the problem, . No one outside of Facebook”s own team has tested the software, so no one is sure what vulnerabilities it may have.

Other observers warn that if a smartphone”s entire interface revolves around Facebook, that could make it more likely for users to intentionally or accidentally post sensitive information about the company on the social networking site.

And given Facebook”s shaky past regarding users” privacy, many see Facebook Home as a new way for the company to get access to more information from users. For example, the Facebook launcher may be able to harvest users” call histories, text messages, etc.

To try and allay concerns, the company recently posted a Q&A on its website addressing Facebook Home privacy. However, the post mostly states that Facebook Home will collect user data in primarily the same ways that Facebook apps always have — which is hardly a comfort to security and privacy experts.

While Facebook fans may not care about that extra data collection, companies may want to take extra steps to protect their information — including blocking Facebook Home from the corporate network.

Other Facebook features create privacy worries

The announcement of Facebook Home and the subsequent complaints follow a similar pattern to what we”ve seen over the past few years: Facebook announces a new feature, then experts warn users and companies about significant privacy concerns.

Before Facebook Home privacy grabbed all the attention, the previous instance was when Facebook announced its Graph Search feature. That function, designed as a challenge to rival Google, is essentially a search engine that allows users to search for key words and get results from their own social circle, rather than the Internet as a whole.

While that gives people a new way to find info online, privacy and security experts warned that it could also gives others a way to find data users had planned to keep private. That could mean trouble for companies if users are on corporate computers or mobile devices that also contain company information.

IT departments are unlikely to keep users off of Facebook on company time and on equipment used for work. But there are some training tips IT can pass along to help protect information in spite of the new risks caused by Facebook Home, Graph Search and other Facebook features:

  • Delete anything you want to be private. Of course, the first rule of social networking privacy still applies: If you absolutely don’t want anyone to see something, don’t post it.
  • Hide your profile from “friends of friends.” One issue pointed out by some observers is that Graph Search will be able to access data posted by people on their friends list – as well as people on their friends’ friends lists. To keep people they don’t know away from their data, users can find the privacy settings listing who can see info from their timeline and make sure “friends,” rather than “friends of friends” is selected.
  • Hide past posts. The step above will regulate who can see future posts, but Facebook’s tricky privacy settings require users to set separate rules for what’s already there. Users can find the setting labeled “Limit the audience for old posts on your timeline” and make changes there.
  • Remove unprofessional tags. It’s a good idea anyway, but users can use the new Facebook features as extra motivation to find and remove any unseemly photo or post they’ve been tagged in.

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