Concerns Persist After Facebook Settlement

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Despite a recent lawsuit, Internet users may still have trouble protecting their privacy on Web sites such as Facebook and Google, UC Berkeley researchers say.

Facebook settled an outstanding 2008 lawsuit on March 18 brought by users of the site who alleged that the Facebook Beacon Program-a program that followed users' online purchases to create personalized advertisements-violated federal privacy law by sharing users' consumer activity with the rest of the social network.

Though Facebook did not admit wrongdoing, the settlement terminated the program and created a $6 million grant system to establish the Digital Trust Foundation, which will fund online privacy programs.

Chris Hoofnagle, director of information privacy programs at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, will sit on the three-member board that will oversee the foundation. The board will not meet until a 30-day appeal window for the suit closes.

Hoofnagle said that social media has laid the foundation for a new category of privacy concerns.

"Consumer privacy issues have taken on a new importance with the rise of social networking," Hoofnagle said. "The problem is that existing regulatory structures are convinced that privacy issues are institutional. We think of entities such as phone companies as the privacy threat, but with social networking, we are the threat because we reveal too much. We tag photos, etc."

Boalt Hall School of Law students are working to bring privacy-related issues to the forefront through the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic-of which Hoofnagle is a senior fellow. The students are learning how to advise and represent real clients in confidentiality problems, according to Jennifer Lynch, who is a faculty director at the clinic.

"What we have to worry about is search histories, pictures and documents that can easily get linked to your e-mail account," Lynch said. "That info can be used by Google to market you personally, but more importantly, if the U.S. government requested that information from Google, they could easily be granted access to it."

Some UC Berkeley students said they have personally seen the use of their personal information by sites such as Facebook, but remain unconcerned.

"I found it a little weird that there were ads on the side of my Facebook linking me to Armenian sites because I am Armenian," said Lena Wassilian, a senior majoring in political science. "But I learned that it has to do with the information you put online, so now I don't pay attention."

Lynch said educating people to use separate web browsers for Gmail and the Google search engine can prevent the company from capturing personal information contained in e-mails.

"Many young people are still operating under the assumption that only their friends see their data," Hoofnagle said. "When in fact others can see their profiles."


Contact Katrina Escudero at [email protected]

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