The Telegraph reported over the holiday weekend: The European Commission is planning to stop the way Facebook”eavesdrops” on its users to gather information about their political opinions, sexuality, religious beliefs – and even their whereabouts.
Using sophisticated software, the firm harvests information from people’s activities on the social networking site – whatever their individual privacy settings – and make it available to advertisers.
However, following concerns over the privacy implications of the practice, a new EC Directive, to be introduced in January, will ban such targeted advertising unless users specifically allow it.
Even though most of the information it harvests is stored on computers in the USA, if Facebook fails to comply with the new legislation it could face legal action or a massive fine.
The move threatens to damage Facebook’s plans to float on the Wall Street stock exchange next year, by undermining the way it makes money
The information analysed and stored by the company is not limited to users’ personal details, and “likes” and “dislikes” that they input on their “walls”.
The firm also gathers details about their friends, family and educational background and detects subtle changes to their lifestyle, enabling it, for example, to target a bride-to-be with advertising for wedding photographers.
Other commercially valuable information, such as what music people are listening to via the site, is also available to advertisers.
Everything people share with their friends on Facebook is being tracked by the firm, retained, and can be used for commercial purposes.
It can even harvest information by performing keyword searches on behalf of advertisers. In this way, it can find out, for instance, details about people’s political beliefs or their sexual preferences.
Facebook stores messages and “chats” sent via the site and keeps them on its database even after they are deleted by those involved in the private online conversations.
The company says it does not use this informatin for advertising.
The sheer volume of personal data accumulated by the company was hinted at earlier this year when a 24-year-old Austrian student, Max Schrems, asked it what information it held on him.
The request led to the site sending him a CD containing 1,222 pages of data. He complained to data watchdogs because the disclosures were incomplete and made clear the social networking site retained further information about him which it had not handed over.
A report from the group says in most cases, “individuals are simply unaware that this is happening” and adds that the authors were “deeply concerned about the privacy and data protection implications of this increasingly widespread practice.”
All Facebook’s 800 million users, whether they realise it or not, agree to let the company use of their personal information.
When signing up, they approve a 4,000 word contract, which licenses Facebook to use their data as it sees fit. This contract can be viewed by clicking on a link in the small print at the foot of each page on the site.
A spokesman for the company said: “We understand that people share a lot of information on Facebook and we take this very seriously.
So how many users have actually read the fine print? How many think Facebook isn’t using your data without your consent? Think again.