Facebook Apps and How to Protect Your Customers' Privacy

by Lorna Collier on April 6, 2011
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Facebook games, quizzes and other apps can be good marketing tools. But if you are thinking of creating one for your business, keep in mind the growing chorus of concerns that they can violate users’ privacy.

The problem? “Applications can access your information even if you’re not the one running an app,” says Christopher Conley, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Facebook apps typically ask a user at the outset for access to information deemed necessary to run the app — perhaps birthdates if the app’s function is to provide birthday reminders, for example.

If a user doesn’t want to reveal such information, he or she can say no. But a user’s friends might say yes — thereby turning over to the game information about their friends without their permission.

Most people don’t realize they are doing this, of course, because Facebook privacy controls can be difficult to manage, especially those dealing with third-party applications, and Facebook usually defaults these settings to a more open, less-private level. Users who want more privacy — and who want to keep their friends from inadvertently giving away their info — need to make changes to their settings to prevent their data from being released.

However, these users then run into problem number two: The settings for third party applications are difficult to find (they are located in the Account Privacy Controls page, in a small tab on the lower left portion of the screen, tagged “Apps and Websites”). Most busy Facebook users, of course, don’t take the time to hunt these settings down or even know they need to.

So what should you do to protect your customers?

“If you are the person or organization developing the application, think about the information you actually need,” says Conley. Don’t automatically ask for the info just because you can; only ask for that which is truly relevant to your app.

If you are hiring someone else to create your app for you, “Think about who you are contracting with — are they thinking about these things?” says Conley. Ask how the developer plans to store and safeguard your customer’s information. After all, says Conley, “Your brand is the one the user is going to see, not the developer’s.”

Need more help? The ACLU of Northern California offers a free guide for businesses to help sort out privacy concerns.

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