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Let the Data War begin: What you Should and Shouldn’t Know about the Facebook Like / Connect Features.

You’ve seen it on popular websites.  It’s the bigger, more bold blue button that says: “Connect with Facebook to Login.”  As a consumer, it’s an easy way for you to provide information to a website to skip the “registration process.”  As a business, it’s an easy way to supply your marketing list and integrate with your users. Regardless of which category you fall into, it’s imperative that you are aware of both sides of the issue, and how the future will affect your life and your business.  This is especially true with countries like Germany forcing businesses to remove Facebook pages and like buttons because it violates their data privacy laws (which is actually inaccurate, but we’ll get to that later).

Facebook Connect is a wonderful tool.  It allows Businesses to access data to provide more relevant information to their users, and consumers a way to keep in touch with their favorite brands.  We use it here at Plastick Media frequently for our clients and custom Facebook apps, but we have noticed that misconceptions about its use are increasing.  So, I’m going to clear up a bit of the confusion.

With the latest popular iteration being used as an “automatic registration” tool on sites like Mashable, Living Social, and Groupon, many companies have gone overboard on what information they choose to pull from a Facebook profile.  I actually have a client, the lead programmer of a leading luxury nightlife/hospitality brand, that pulled every piece of information possible from people that connected to the apps he built.  Not only did he pull every piece of information possible, but he also pulled information from their friends if they hadn’t changed their privacy settings to not allow him to do so.

Let me put that in a lamens-style hypothetical situation for you.  If my friend Katie went to the Sports Authority Facebook Page, saw that she could get a coupon for 50% off, and did the mandatory process of clicking on the “connect with us” to receive said coupon–she’s now agreed to give Sports Authority application whatever data they decide to ask for.  And there is a LOT they can ask for.  Not only that, but depending on her and her friend’s privacy settings, she could also be giving away MY data, even though I could care less about Sports Authority.

The trickiest part about the whole process, is that most people are unaware of what data each application is asking for.  In fact, if you’ve ever connected with an app, you usually see this window:

The icons to the left outline what data you’re allowing the program to access from your profile.  If there are more than the allowed list limit in this window (usually 6 or 7), it will usually display a count below, stating “and 43 other permissions.”  If you don’t look at what data the app is pulling from you, then you’re potentially allowing businesses to take advantage of you.  If you’re a business that does this, I highly encourage you to look at the reasoning behind WHY you want this data.  While I’m sure it’s a great tool for demographic information, the potential for it to put your consumers in a negative situation far outweighs the potential use of good information (especially with Mobile Threats and Hacktivism on the rise).  Since almost all of us are Facebook users these days, I think it’s imperative for the social good of social networking that entrepreneurs take the stance of only taking what data they need and will find useful in helping to provide better products and services to their customers.  Period.

Now, that kind of spells doom and gloom for us users, doesn’t it?  This is exactly why the German state (linked in the beginning of the post) is fining and banning the like button from websites and asking businesses to delete fan pages.  The reality is, however, that actually “liking” a page does not allow information to pass between the user and the fan page, other than the privacy limits you employ currently.

Confusing?  Let’s look at another example.  If I set my privacy controls so that only my friends can see my data and I like the Sports Authority page, then the administrators of the Sports Authority page will not be able to see or interact with any of my content.  If I leave everything wide open, however, they can.  And since Facebook recently allowed pages a little bit more flexibility in interaction (posting on fan’s walls and commenting on status updates, for example), it’s important for you to start setting your data privacy to a comfortable level for you.  Trust me, brand will be utilizing this more heavily in the future.

But anyway–the misunderstanding between Facebook Connect and the “Like” feature on pages is why the Germany ban is ill-informed and wrong.  Well, at least it’s wrong to a certain degree.  They should be putting stipulations on Developers misusing Facebook Connect, not Fan Pages and Like buttons all together.  They’re not the source of the harm.  It’s companies pulling data they shouldn’t be pulling without user’s knowing it that is the issue.  Let’s not forget that we sign up for Facebook, and we allow the data.  It’s not their fault if you don’t check out what you’re sharing.  Right?

Furthermore, this brings up another point.  Because of the staunch issues with data abuse within Facebook Connect, Facebook had to institute controls that allowed users to go in and remove erroneous app permission requests.  Ironically, most people aren’t aware it exists.  Once you go to your app settings page, you will see something like this:

See the remove button?  I can click that little bad boy so that it can’t access my contact information.  The bad part?  There are certain things I would like to remove that are “required” elements of this particular application.  Facebook isn’t Apple, and doesn’t control what Developers can and can’t require.  Personally, I have no idea why Living Social needs to know about my family and my relationships, but I would love it if I could remove it.  Unfortunately, I can’t–unless I remove the app altogether.  You’ll also see at the bottom, you can limit who can see the data that the app shares.  For instance, if you have a permission set to allow an app to post something on your wall, you can control who can see that post or not.  Personally, I don’t want any app to share anything on my wall without my permission.

This all comes at the recent release of Facebook’s new iteration of Privacy Controls.  They’re attempting to make things easier to understand for people, and it will definitely be a more user-friendly visual system.  With the release, they discussed getting rid of Facebook places, as well as adding more privacy features. Read about the new Features here.  Watch out though, because Facebook plans on adding location-based geo-tagging to every element of your profile.  Imagine the field day app developers will have when they can find out where you are at a moment’s notice, or the places you frequent.  Anyway, here are some tips for you to start maximizing Facebook Connect and stronger privacy controls as both a user, and as a business.

Tips on maximizing your profile data security:

  1. Make sure you’re settings allow for only the people you want to see your profile.
  2. When you connect with an application, check what permissions they’re asking for.
  3. Go to your app settings, and check what information past applications are pulling that you could remove.  If you don’t agree with the information they’re pulling, just delete the entire app all together.
  4. Make sure you control whether or not applications can pull information from your friends or family.
Tips on maximizing your business for ethical data usage:
  1. Utilize the Facebook Connect feature on your website and your Facebook Applications, but only take data that you would normally use in the registration process.
  2. Only require data requests that you know that you actually need on your apps.  If you’re going to ask for something you don’t, allow your users the option to stop sharing that information with you.
  3. Educate your users on your privacy policy, and ensure them that you will not share or sell their data.
  4. Educate your users on what you’re actually using their data for if it’s a seemingly unnecessary use.
  5. Don’t work with businesses that use Facebook data unethically.
  6. Make sure you understand the difference between Facebook Connect and the Like Feature, and educate your colleagues.

Long story short, please be aware of what Facebook Connect is and isn’t.  Be aware of what Facebook Pages are and aren’t.  Be aware of what data you’re sharing, and what data you’re not sharing.  This is the age of the Internet.  Let’s not take advantage of people’s information, and definitely don’t let people take advantage of yours.  Stay informed, friends.  It’s a whacky world we live in.

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Tori Kyes is a Los Angeles-based writer/producer and entrepreneur. She specializes in social media, technology, and entertainment. She's also an advocate for social change, a marathon runner, Ph. D student (Media Psychology), gratitude giver, and lover of life.

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