Privacy advocates are warning Facebook users about the privacy implications of the social network's new Graph Search tool, which enables users to search specific content shared by their friends.
The tool enables users to search for people, photos, places and interests. Facebook gave some examples of what users can search: ‘People who like tennis and live nearby’, ‘Friends of friends who have been to Yosemite National Park’, ‘Photos of my friends before 1999’, etc.
The company claimed the tool doesn't undermine users' privacy and users are only able to see the content that friends have shared with them.
“When you share something on Facebook, you get to decide exactly who can see that content,” Facebook director of Engineering Lars Rasmussen wrote on the social networking site.
“We make sure that only photos that the owner has shared with the person conducting the search can be seen on the photo results page. But we have also to make sure that each photo features at least one person who has shared with the searcher," Rasmussen said.
However, privacy advocate David Lindsay from the Australian Privacy Foundation said the search tool may have some privacy implications relating to user consent as users who previously posted content may not have known that it would be used by advertisers to gather information on them.
“Graph Search - like any powerful search tool - increases accessibility, and allows for matching of data that was previously unconnected. This will reveal information about people that they would not have necessarily expected to have been revealed (or at least not in this way),” he said.
“The matching of data may reveal new information, obviously including information that can be used by advertisers. So some users may feel exposed in ways they had no reason to expect when the information was posted. As with a lot of social networking service activity, there are issues of informed consent here.”
He also pointed out that Facebook’s “poor privacy record” is a concern and questioned how it will act on user requests to remove private information from the search tool.
“For example, if Facebook says (as it seems to have in the publicity accompanying Graph Search) it will delete information on request, will it do so effectively? Will it do this in a timely way?
“Facebook seems to be making an effort to counter privacy concerns - by saying that users will be contacted and warned about their privacy settings. But there remain underlying concerns arising from both Facebook's past behaviour and the sustainability of their business model - which pushes it to introduce new services and applications that are aimed at monetising their users' information.”
Another privacy advocate, David Cake from Electronic Frontiers Australia, is cautioning users to carefully review their privacy settings for content that they have posted on Facebook. With the Graph Search making content much more easy to find, he said privacy should be at the top of users’ mind when posting content.
“While Facebook isn’t changing or giving access to information that you weren’t able to see before, they are enabling [users] to find information that may have been a lot more difficult [to find before], Cake said.
“I think it will tend to have some privacy implications in that things that were set that would have formally gone unnoticed may well be picked up.
“I think people should always be concerned about their privacy on Facebook and I think this is really going to demonstrate why. While they are not directly changing what information is private and ‘seeable’, I think for many people it will quite possibly prove to be a privacy shock.”
Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim is also cautioning users to check their privacy settings when posting content.
"The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has been briefed by Facebook on this feature. At this stage, I understand that Facebook Graph Search only allows users to search content that they are already permitted to view in Facebook.
“The OAIC will continue to monitor the roll out of this feature… I strongly encourage people to investigate and make use of the privacy features offered by Facebook, including the audience selector and tag removal tools.”
Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett