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Just how bad is Facebook app privacy problem?

Despite Facebook's celebrated simplified privacy settings, the site's apps -- FarmVille, Quiz Maker and the like -- have shared tens of millions of Facebook app users' personal information to third-party advertisers, according to a Wall Street Journal report:

"The information being transmitted is one of Facebook's basic building blocks: the unique 'Facebook ID' number assigned to every user on the site. Since a Facebook user ID is a public part of any Facebook profile, anyone can use an ID number to look up a person's name, using a standard Web browser, even if that person has set all of his or her Facebook information to be private. For other users, the Facebook ID reveals information they have set to share with 'everyone,' including age, residence, occupation and photos. "The apps reviewed by the Journal were sending Facebook ID numbers to at least 25 advertising and data firms, several of which build profiles of Internet users by tracking their online activities."

According to the WSJ, Facebook's 10 most popular applications are among those transmitting users' IDs to outside companies. The report also highlights the ongoing problem of the "app gap" -- Facebook users who don't use applications are still at risk of having their personal information shared with third parties if they're Facebook "friends" with people who do.

In other news, dog bites man.

Certainly, WSJ's findings are not to be taken lightly. While Facebook and several of the applications involved claim the data collection was an unknown error, a spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out if the WSJ could find this information, why didn't Facebook know about it?

Still, while sharing user information is a glaring violation of Facebook privacy rules, it's hardly the Y2K of social networking. Or, considering the hysteria that surrounded that non-event, perhaps it is. Experts contend that the shared information -- even that of Facebook app users who (thought) they had their profiles completely locked down, is more of a flaw of Internet life than an insidious plot.

In a Twitter debate Sunday night, author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and Business Insider's Henry Blodget broke down several sides of the issue. Jarvis contended that the latest piece in WSJ's series on online privacy represented the Rupert Murdoch-owned media's "war against the Internet."

Blodget pointed out that at the very least, the WSJ revealed the direct violation of Facebook's app rules, which, he added "admittedly most folks couldn't care less about."

"So you learn Jeff Jarvis uses Facebook," Jarvis countered. "The White Pages reveal I use the phone. So?"

Indeed, long before Facebook, offline businesses freely shared any information collected through store loyalty cards, catalogs, etc.

Any "business as usual" argument doesn't wash with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If major companies violating privacy is business as usual, there is a serious problem," said Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney at the online privacy advocacy organization in a telephone interview. The WSJ report reveals "an egregious invasion of Facebook privacy," he said. Applications are violating Facebook's rules and "Facebook has no way of policing them, or is choosing not to. In the end, it's Facebook responsibility. They invited people on to their site, it is their responsibility to safeguard user privacy."

This isn't the first Facebook privacy problem reported by the WSJ. In May, the WSJ reported that several social networks, including Facebook, sent identifiable profile information to advertisers without user consent. A lawsuit ensued.

Even if you've chosen never to play FarmVille, or other Facebook applications, your personal information may've been shared by those applications anyway. WSJ found that three of the top 10 apps (including FarmVille) have been "transmitting personal information about a user's friends to outside companies."

"What's most troubling is that these advertisers are tracking your behavior," said Bankston. "Apps help advertising companies track users and create a very sensitive dossier of your interests, all with the constant reassurance that your real identity is protected. By handing over Facebook user IDs, apps enable advertisers to tie your real name and identity, so these behavior advertising companies have detailed information about you, and now they have a real name to put to those logs."

Facebook for its part seems to be taking this issue more seriously than privacy fails of the past. "This is an even more complicated technical challenge than a similar issue we successfully addressed last spring on, but one that we are committed to addressing," a Facebook spokesperson told the WSJ.

Several of the smaller third-party applications found sharing user info were shut down over the weekend after the WSJ spoke to Facebook, though notably none from top money-maker Zynga, which makes FarmVille, Texas Holdem, and FrontierVille.

Facebook's top 10 apps found sharing information

  • FarmVille 59.4 million users
  • Phrases 43.4 million users
  • Texas HoldEm 36.3 million users
  • FrontierVille 30.6 million users
  • Causes 26.7 million users
  • Cafe World 21.9 million users
  • Mafia Wars: 21.9 million users
  • Quiz Planet 16.5 million users
  • Treasure Isle 15.3 million users
  • IHeart 14.0 million users

Learn how to protect your Facebook info from third party apps.