Facebook Caught Sending User Data to Advertisers

The Wall Street Journal is reporting on what could be a major scandal brewing for Facebook, MySpace and other social networks: despite assurances to the contrary, the sites have apparently been sending personal and identifiable information about users to their advertisers without consent.

Large advertising companies including Google's DoubleClick and Yahoo's Right Media were identified as having received information including usernames or ID numbers that could be traced back to individual profiles as users clicked on ads. The data could potentially be used to look up personal information about the user, including real name, age, occupation, location, and anything else made public on the profile. Both of the aforementioned companies denied being aware of the "extra" data they were receiving and claim they have not made use of it.

The WSJ goes on to report that since raising questions about the practice with Facebook and MySpace , both companies have since rewritten at least some of the code that allowed transmission of identifiable data. Beyond those two companies, LiveJournal, Hi5, Xanga and Digg made the list of sites identified as sending identifiable information back to advertisers when a user clicked on individual ads.

The Journal found that Facebook went farther than most in sharing identifiable data, by sending the username of the person clicking the ad as well as the username of the profile they were viewing at the time. This news could hardly come at a worse time for Facebook, a company that currently faces a privacy backlash potent enough to make the cover of Time Magazine this month. Outside of Facebook, the other companies named in the article maintain the data they send to advertisers contains the user ID of the profile a user is visiting when they click on an ad, and not the user ID of the visitor themselves. Both Google and Yahoo made strong statements refuting the idea that they would ever make use of any such personally identifiable data. Yahoo VP of global policy Anne Toth said of the allegations, "We prohibit clients from sending personally identifiable information to us. We have told them. 'We don't want it. You shouldn't be sending it to us. If it happens to be there, we are not looking for it.'"

What do you think: is this another privacy-related stain on Facebook as well as other social networks, or much ado about nothing?

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