Facebook's phone follies: Dial S for sleazy

Facebook is in the middle of another privacy crisis, this time about listing user phone numbers. As usual, the company brought it on itself

Oops, they did it again. Facebook is involved in yet another privacy kerfuffle -– this time for something the company did way back in January 2010.

The little-known Facebook Contacts list (formerly called the Facebook Phonebook) is suddenly getting a lot of attention, thanks to rumors that have been spreading across the social network like kudzu.

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What Facebook Contacts does, simply, is list in one handy place the names and numbers of all your friends who have made their phone numbers public. If you've ever coughed up your mobile or desk number to Facebook and made it available via your privacy settings, all your Facebook friends now have it, and vice versa.

(It's easy to see: Log into Facebook, go to Accounts, and then Edit Friends. Click "Contacts" and you'll see exactly which of your Facebook posse have shared their numbers.)

But if you've ever used Facebook on your mobile phone, it also reaches into your handset and grabs all those numbers -- including people who are not on Facebook, like your doctor or the burrito joint down the street –- and uploads them to your Contacts.

Facebook then tries to match the phone numbers in your phone to Facebook profiles that display the same number. And sometimes it gets it wrong, so total strangers show up in your Contacts list.

The rumor that got everyone freaked was that your phone book is open and available to everyone on Facebook. That isn't true. Only you can see your own phone book. But any of those numbers whose Contact Info privacy settings is set to "everyone" is visible to everyone on Facebook.

What's the problem? A few things:

  • Facebook utterly failed in its efforts to inform users it was doing this. At best, this info was buried in some vaguely worded splash screen; in many cases not even that. The proof? The shock and surprise spreading across the InterWebs about this.
  • As usual, Facebook made this an opt-out feature, instead of asking people if they wanted their electronic little black books buttered all over Facebook. You'd think it would've figured this one out by now.
  • Let's face it –- many Facebook friends aren't actual friends. People you might ask to join your Facebook posse may not be people you'd want to have your phone number, which is an inherently more personal thing than a Facebook account. The notion that Facebook is giving them your digits seems wrong. 
  • People who aren't on Facebook now have their phone numbers stored on Facebook's servers. Nobody asked their permission.
  • Worse, Facebook is using this an an excuse to send them invitations to join Facebook. Once again, you have to opt out. That's what this is really about -– trying to use your personal contacts to grow the network.

New York Times blogger Sam Grobart says this is another case of "Facebook engineers thinking like engineers" –- something I've written about a few times. I think it's a case of Facebook thinking like Facebook -- putting its own interests first and user privacy a very distant second.

Like Google and Apple, Facebook wants to dominate your mobile experience. But when you buy an iPhone or an Android handset, you're making a conscious choice of Google or Apple. Facebook's trying to sneak in the backdoor. It's a sleazy thing to do, but not a bit surprising.

Does Facebook have your number? And if so, what do you plan to do about it? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Facebook's phone follies: Dial S for sleazy," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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