October 18th, 2010
The Wall Street Journal
By: Emily Steel and Geoffrey A. Fowler
Many of the most popular applications, or “apps,” on the social-networking site Facebook Inc. have been transmitting identifying information—in effect, providing access to people’s names and, in some cases, their friends’ names—to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.
The issue affects tens of millions of Facebook app users, including people who set their profiles to Facebook’s strictest privacy settings. The practice breaks Facebook’s rules, and renews questions about its ability to keep identifiable information about its users’ activities secure.
The problem has ties to the growing field of companies that build detailed databases on people in order to track them online—a practice the Journal has been examining in its What They Know series. It’s unclear how long the breach was in place. On Sunday, a Facebook spokesman said it is taking steps to “dramatically limit” the exposure of users’ personal information.
“A Facebook user ID may be inadvertently shared by a user’s Internet browser or by an application,” the spokesman said. Knowledge of an ID “does not permit access to anyone’s private information on Facebook,” he said, adding that the company would introduce new technology to contain the problem identified by the Journal.
“Our technical systems have always been complemented by strong policy enforcement, and we will continue to rely on both to keep people in control of their information,” the Facebook official said.
“Apps” are pieces of software that let Facebook’s 500 million users play games or share common interests with one another. The Journal found that all of the 10 most popular apps on Facebook were transmitting users’ IDs to outside companies.
The apps, ranked by research company Inside Network Inc. (based on monthly users), include Zynga Game Network Inc.’s FarmVille, with 59 million users, and Texas HoldEm Poker and FrontierVille. Three of the top 10 apps, including FarmVille, also have been transmitting personal information about a user’s friends to outside companies.
Most apps aren’t made by Facebook, but by independent software developers. Several apps became unavailable to Facebook users after the Journal informed Facebook that the apps were transmitting personal information; the specific reason for their unavailability remains unclear.
The information being transmitted is one of Facebook’s basic building blocks: the unique “Facebook ID” number assigned to every user on the site. Since a Facebook user ID is a public part of any Facebook profile, anyone can use an ID number to look up a person’s name, using a standard Web browser, even if that person has set all of his or her Facebook information to be private. For other users, the Facebook ID reveals information they have set to share with “everyone,” including age, residence, occupation and photos.
The apps reviewed by the Journal were sending Facebook ID numbers to at least 25 advertising and data firms, several of which build profiles of Internet users by tracking their online activities.
Defenders of online tracking argue that this kind of surveillance is benign because it is conducted anonymously. In this case, however, the Journal found that one data-gathering firm, RapLeaf Inc., had linked Facebook user ID information obtained from apps to its own database of Internet users, which it sells. RapLeaf also transmitted the Facebook IDs it obtained to a dozen other firms, the Journal found.
RapLeaf said that transmission was unintentional. “We didn’t do it on purpose,” said Joel Jewitt, vice president of business development for RapLeaf.
Facebook said it previously has “taken steps … to significantly limit Rapleaf’s ability to use any Facebook-related data.”
Facebook prohibits app makers from transferring data about users to outside advertising and data companies, even if a user agrees. The Journal’s findings shed light on the challenge of policing those rules for the 550,000 apps on its site.
By Bradley A. Blakeman
Without the ingenuity of America’s brightest minds and the investment of U.S. taxpayer dollars, there would be no Internet, as we now know it today.
Now, the Obama administration has moved quietly to cede control of the Web from the United States to foreign powers.
Some background: The Internet came into being because of the genius work of Americans Dr.Robert E. Kahn and Dr. Vinton G. Cerf. These men, while working for the Department of Defense in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the early 1970s, conceived, designed, and implemented the idea of “open-architecture networking.”
This breakthrough in connectivity and networking was the birth of the Internet.
These two gentlemen had the vision and the brainpower to create a worldwide computer Internet communications network that forever changed the world and how we communicate in it.
They discovered that providing a person with a unique identifier (TCP/IP)that was able to be recognized and interact through a network of servers would allow users to communicate with others.
The servers woulduse a series of giant receivers to recognize the identifier and connect networks to networks, passing on information from computer to computer in a seamless real-time exchange of information. This new process of communication became know as the “information super highway,” aka, the Internet.
Now for the bad news: In an effort to show the world how inclusive, sharing, cooperative, and international America can be, the Obama administration set off on a plan to surrender control and key management of the Internet by the U.S. Department of Commerce and its agents.
The key to the control America has over the Internet is through the management of the Domain Name System (DNS) and the giant servers that service the Internet.
Domain names are managed through an entity named IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. The IANA, which operates on behalf of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is responsible for the global coordination of the DNS, IP addressing, and other Internet protocol resources.
In short, without an IP Address or other essential Internet protocols, a person or entity would not have access to the Internet.
For years, the international community has been pressuring the United States
to surrender its control and management of the Internet. They want an international body such as the United Nations or even the International Telecommunications Union, (an entity that coordinates international telephone communications), to manage all aspects of the Internet in behalf of all nations.
The argument advanced for those seeking international control of the Internet is that the Internet has become such a powerful, pervasive, and a dependent form of international communications, that it would be dangerous and inequitable for any one nation to control and manage it.
Just this past spring, within months of Obama’s taking office, his administration, through the Department of Commerce, agreed to relinquish some control over IANA and their governance. The Obama administration has agreed to give greater representation to foreign companies and countries on IANA.
This amounts to one small step for internationalism and one giant leap for surrendering America’s control over an invention we have every right and responsibility to control and manage.
It is in America’s economic and national security interests not to relinquish any control. We are responsible for the control, operation, and functionality of one of the modern world’s greatest inventions and most powerful communications network.
What better country to protect the Internet than the United States?
We invented it, and we paid for the research and implementation that made it
possible. We are the freest, most tolerant nation on earth, we believe in the
fundamental right of free speech, and we practice a free market of commerce and ideas.
America has always been against censorship and has shared its invention with the world without fee or unreasonable or arbitrary restriction. The user fee to operate on the Internet is not one paid to the U.S. government; a consumer pays it to private Internet companies, who provide access to the Internet through servers for their subscribers.
Look no further than China’s recent move against Google to censor the
Internet, and you can envision what can happen when other nations less free
than the United States seek to control the Internet beyond even their own borders.
America needs to wake up. If we lose control over the management of the
Internet, we have given away one of our nation’s greatest assets with nothing
in return to show for it.
The Obama administration’s actions will set in motion a slow and complete takeover of the Internet by the United Nations or some other equally U.S.-hostile and unfriendly international body. And once it is gone, it will be gone forever.
The surrender of the Internet will spell disaster for our nation, financially, as well as for safety, security and our standing as a great power that values freedom and the free exchange of ideas and information.
As far as I am concerned, America is still the last best hope for a more
peaceful and prosperous world and our president should not be looking for
ways to weaken us. Rather, his job is to work to strengthen us and protect our nation’s greatest asset our people’s creativity and ingenuity.