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Facebook oversteps again, importing cell phone contacts

Digital Savant: Omar Gallaga

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The email I got from a co-worker contained a dire warning about Facebook that was being passed around by users of the social media service. It said, in part, "ALL THE PHONE NUMBERS in your phone are now on posted on this Facebook machine!"

I get warnings like this about social media sites a lot. I usually ignore them, but I went to check this one out, if only to have a ready answer for anyone else asking about the Facebook thing.

To my shock and dismay, I discovered the email was right — 823 contacts from my phone appeared on my Facebook account. Home numbers. Office numbers. Numbers for people like my wife, who has never had a Facebook account and who would freak out if she knew her personal and work phone numbers were sitting on one of Facebook's servers along with her name. (Please don't tell her.)

That list of phone contacts was only visible to me. My Facebook friends and other visitors to my Facebook profile couldn't see them. But it still bothered me that Facebook had these numbers.

While I was growing flustered about this, I also discovered that my own phone number was being published on my Facebook profile, visible to all my Facebook friends (and available to import to their own contact lists) even though I've made a point to never include my number as part of myprofile.I quickly edited my profile to remove that information and checked a setting to make sure that number will only appear to me in case it ever shows up there again.

But it's probably too late. For any of my Facebook friends who had already synchronized their contact lists with Facebook's phone list, my number's out there.

How did this happen? If you use the Facebook mobile app for, say, an iPhone or Android phone, you're given the option to synchronize your Facebook contacts with your phone. The app does the neat trick of using your friends' Facebook profile photos. When one of those contacts calls you, their smiling Facebook profile photo appears on your phone's screen. What many of us didn't know is that the app also collects all the names and numbers on your phone and uploads them to Facebook, storing them there for ... I don't know, purely altruistic purposes?

This also appears to happen when you use Facebook's recently released "Messenger" mobile chat app.

But that sinking loss-of-privacy feeling is familiar to me as a member of Facebook. It feels like every six months or so an alert goes out about some new overstepping by Facebook that changes the way private information is displayed or shared. Each time Facebook has done this, members have caused a ruckus. The company then gives a half-hearted apology, takes a half step back — and then goes ahead and does what it wants anyway.

It's been happening since 2006, when Facebook introduced News Feeds without giving users the option to opt out of the feature. In 2007, the company's Beacon social advertising venture (which automatically let friends know what you were buying on sites like Amazon.com) prompted a class-action lawsuit. More recently, the company and some of the developers who create apps for Facebook have been accused of sharing too much of users' personal information with advertisers.

One Facebook friend, reacting to a post I wrote about the situation, said simply, "What the heck, Facebook?" Others expressed the same sentiment with much stronger language.

Tom Anderson, co-founder of MySpace, weighed in on the matter in a Google+ blog post, writing, "People are freaking out left & right... I like Facebook... They are a super smart group of people, who've made an incredible number of right moves. Why is it that they keep having these privacy gaffes? Honestly, I don't know. You'd think they could have seen this blowup coming from a mile away."

(The post no longer appears on Anderson's Google+ profile; he either deleted it or made the post private.)

This time, Facebook didn't even issue an apology, it merely blamed its users for not knowing that the company has been collecting phone numbers this way for a while.

The company said in a Facebook profile page post, "Rumors claiming that your phone contacts are visible to everyone on Facebook are false. Our Contacts list, formerly called Phonebook, has existed for a long time. The phone numbers listed there were either added by your friends themselves and made visible to you, or you have previously synced your phone contacts with Facebook. Just like on your phone, only you can see these numbers."

That's supposed to make us feel better? It completely missed the point of why users might be a little miffed and mystified.

Stranger is that some tech columnists, including New York Times writer Sam Grobart, advised readers to calm down and chalked it up to engineers introducing features without being good at communicating what they're for.

"The way I see it, my data's all over the place — so long as I am neither harassed nor stolen from, I'm going to live with it," Grobart wrote.

Facebook remains wildly popular and extremely useful for many of us to keep in touch with famliy members and friends. But its voracious appetite for our personal information feels invasive and icky, no matter how benign the company's use of that data might turn out to be.

Simply letting Facebook off the hook for being unclear about the data it's collecting (and burying options to scrap or protect that data under layers of obscure menus) tells the company that it's free to keep practicing business this way. Even worse, it encourages others to follow suit. The business social networking site LinkedIn had some users up in arms about a new "social advertising" platform that inserted names and photos of members into ads for companies without first asking members if they'd like to opt-in to participate.

It sounded a lot like Facebook, circa two years ago, when it dealt with complaints about social ads from third-party app developers using user data in a similar way.

It says something that LinkedIn's social ad fiasco still made me immediately think, out of habit, "What the heck, Facebook?"

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672

Omar Gallaga blogs about all things technology at austin360.com/digitalsavant