Online Privacy = Oxymoron

Facebook is in hot water over its users' privacy once again. On Monday The Wall Street Journal reported that the top ten applications on the platform have been sharing potentially sensitive user information with at least 25 advertising and data firms. The resulting uproar has led to some prodding from congress, as well as a class action lawsuit against Zynga, the developer of Facebook's most popular games.

According to the Journal's investigation, the Facebook User ID was being passed (perhaps unintentionally) by the application makers (not Facebook) to the advertising and data firms that supply them with display ads and offers. On the surface the Facebook ID is only a number that is assigned to each user, but given a simple online search this number reveals a person's name, and any other information - including friend's list, occupation, age, even photos - that they have set to share with "everyone." Because the platform's top ten apps have a combined reach of over 270 million users, tens of millions of people, if not more, could be effected.

The leak appears to be inconsequential. After all, does it really matter if an advertising firm knows that you play Farmville? However, dig a little deeper and you realize why privacy advocates are noticing. Everything you do online is tracked whether you know it or not. Do some fine print reading on any website's privacy page and you'll be amazed with what they gather. Mining companies and advertisers set cookies, beacons and pixel trackers to follow where you go, what you buy, what you read and how long you spend on a website. One company I looked at boasted having 1,600 points of information on over 50 million people in its database.

The single most important missing piece of information, and the reason these companies are allowed to exist, is because none of the information they gather is personally identifiable - and that's why this is getting attention. If app developers start sharing your Facebook ID (which, by the way, is a clear violation of Facebook's policies) with third parties, they are giving them the potential to take their 1,600 pieces of data and assign it to a real name. In the short term the only bi-product of this information gathering might be that you're shown ads you are more interested in. In the long term, your guess is as good as mine. One thing is for sure, whoever figures out the best way to erase your digital footprint is going to be very rich.