Ottawa – Facebook has agreed to add significant new privacy safeguards and make other changes in response to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s recent investigation into the popular social networking site’s privacy policies and practices. The company’s decision to implement the Privacy Commissioner’s recommendations is a positive step towards bringing Facebook in line with the requirements of Canada’s privacy law.
“These changes mean that the privacy of 200 million Facebook users in Canada and around the world will be far better protected,” says Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. “This is extremely important. People will be able to enjoy the benefits of social networking without giving up control of their personal information. We’re very pleased Facebook has been responsive to our recommendations.”
Last month, the Privacy Commissioner issued a report on an in-depth investigation triggered by a complaint from the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. While Facebook took some steps to resolve privacy concerns, the Commissioner remained dissatisfied by Facebook’s response at the end of the investigation. She was particularly concerned about the risks posed by the over-sharing of personal information with third-party developers of Facebook applications such as games and quizzes.
Facebook was given 30 days to respond to the Commissioner’s report and explain how it would address the outstanding concerns. Following a review of Facebook’s formal response and discussions with company officials, the Commissioner is now satisfied Facebook is on the right path to addressing the privacy gaps on its site.
“Facebook is promising to make significant technological changes to address the issue we felt was the biggest risk for users – the relatively free flow of personal information to more than one million application developers around the world,” says Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who led the investigation on behalf of the Office. “Application developers have had virtually unrestricted access to Facebook users’ personal information. The changes Facebook plans to introduce will allow users to control the types of personal information that applications can access.”
An over-arching issue highlighted during the investigation was that the way in which Facebook provides privacy information to users is often confusing or incomplete. Facebook agreed to changes to help users to better understand how their personal information will be used and, ultimately, to make more informed decisions about how widely to share that information. The Commissioner has reviewed these improvements and will be following up with Facebook as the changes are implemented.
The following is an overview of key issues raised during the investigation and Facebook’s response:
1. Third-party Application Developers
Issue: The sharing of personal information with third-party developers creating Facebook applications such as games and quizzes raises serious privacy risks. With more than one million developers around the globe, the Commissioner is concerned about a lack of adequate safeguards to effectively restrict those developers from accessing users’ personal information, along with information about their online “friends.”
Response: Facebook has agreed to retrofit its application platform in a way that will prevent any application from accessing information until it obtains express consent for each category of personal information it wishes to access. Under this new permissions model, users adding an application will be advised that the application wants access to specific categories of information. The user will be able to control which categories of information an application is permitted to access. There will also be a link to a statement by the developer to explain how it will use the data. This change will require significant technological changes. Developers using the platform will also need to adapt their applications and Facebook expects the entire process to take one year to implement.
2. Deactivation of Accounts
Issue: Facebook provides confusing information about the distinction between account deactivation – whereby personal information is held in digital storage – and deletion – whereby personal information is actually erased from Facebook servers. As well, Facebook should implement a retention policy under which the personal information of users who have deactivated their accounts will be deleted from the site’s servers after a reasonable length of time.
3. Personal Information of Non-users
Issue: Facebook should better protect the privacy of non-users who are invited to join the site.
4. Accounts of Deceased Users
Facebook has committed to a timetable for implementing all of the changes, some of which, such as the third-party application changes, are technologically complex. The company has already started to make changes and we expect them to be fully complete within a year.
“It’s now up to Facebook to demonstrate to us that they are living up to their commitments,” says Assistant Commissioner Denham. “With the conclusion of the Facebook investigation, our Office has made clear our expectations for how social networking sites need to protect personal information. Other sites should take note – and take steps to ensure they’re complying with Canadian law.”