Facebook rolls out new privacy tools

Could it be just what the Privacy Commissioner ordered?

After spending the past 60 days in lockdown, Facebook engineers yesterday took the wraps off several tools that Mark Zuckerberg, the social networking sites CEO, promised would be provide users greater control over their private information.

The changes came just two weeks after Canada’s privacy commissioner said she was satisfied with the site’s efforts in dealing with privacy complaints filed against Facebook two years ago.

Yesterday’s site revamp was also welcome news for Ontario’s privacy commissioner.

“Any tools that enhance user control are welcome,” said Dr. Ann Cavoukian, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

Top among yesterday’s announcement was a new feature that will enable Facebook users to download their personal data into a Zip file.

Zuckerberg said the “Download Your Information” tool allows users to get a copy of “everything” they’ve ever posted to the site including photos, status updates and wall posts.

Facebook Bible: Everything you need to know about Canada’s favourite social network

Greater granular control

Another new tool is a dashboard that monitors what applications people have used. The tool notes the last time they used and makes it easier to delete them.

Zuckerberg also announced an overhaul of the site’s Facebook Groups.

He said sharing information across a user’s collection of Facebook friends has always been an issue. “In the real world people share different information with different groups of friends,” he said.

For instance a Facebook user might want to share set of photos with a friend but would not want his officemates or boss to see the same pictures.

Facebook created Facebook Groups to enable users to limit the number of people viewing posts to group members only. However, Zuckerberg said, only a measly five per cent of Facebook users were committed to creating group lists.So instead, Facebook developed a simple way for users to “map out” their friends and communities.

“Rather than asking all of you to classify how you know all of your friends, or programming machines to guess which sets of people are likely cohorts, we’re offering something that’s as simple as inviting your best friends over for dinner. And we think it will change the way you use Facebook and the Web.”

Users can add friends or family members to a group and then those people can invite others to the same group. Expanding from its regular chat feature, which lets two people communicate live online, Facebook also announced Group Chats, applies to this feature to multiple users.

Early this year, Cavoukian had admonished Facebookfor failing to “put privacy first” when it made changes to its social networkign site.

But yesterday, Cavoukian said:”On the face of it, these appear to be positive developments from Facebook, in terms of giving users additional control over their information.”

“I always take the positive-sum view – you can use online social networks and protect your privacy, if you exercise control over your personal information,” she added.

Facebook not off the hook

In late September, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart approval of Facebook’s propgress was “not a blanket endorsement of Facebook” and that her office continues to investigate several key features of the site as they pertain to user privacy and personal information.

Stoddart also said her office was involved in investigating Facebook’s like button.

At that time, David Fewer, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), said lack of user control over who gets what personal information they have on the site, remains a critical issue.

But yesterday, other analysts said Facebook appears to be taking yet another right direction in user privacy.”Greater security and privacy controls when it comes to one’s personal information are never a bad thing,” said James Quin, lead analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

“That Facebook has seen fit to introduce some of these controls now is something that they should be applauded for, but as a community, we shouldn’t let them rest on their laurels. Cyber crime is ever evolving and providers need to be working constantly to keep up,” he added.

Another security expert said more rigorous controls at users hands are needed.

Facebook can be commended for allowing users to download their own work product from its systems, said Claudiu Popa, principal of Toronto-based firm Informatica.

“However the simple act of making such a Zip file available does not by any means guarantee control over one’s data,” he noted.

“For that to happen, more rigorous controls should exist, in the form of user agreements and time-stamped guarantees of data destruction following account closure,” said Popa

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