Consumer Reports Calls Facebook’s Privacy Controls ‘Labyrinthian’

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Consumer Reports says Facebook has “labyrinthian policies and controls.”

Facebook isn’t clear enough in telling its 150 million users in the U.S. how to protect personal information, according to Consumer Reports, which described the social network’s policies and controls as “labyrinthian.”

About 13 million of those users haven’t set online privacy controls, indicating that many people can’t find the settings or don’t understand the need to guard data, the consumer organization said in the June issue of its magazine.

The report adds to the scrutiny that Facebook is receiving, a week before the world’s most popular social-networking service is due to start marketing a $5 billion initial public offering. One pillar of Facebook’s strategy is helping advertisers target audiences that can be identified because users share data on matters such as dating habits and hobbies.

“A lot of things about the service are not very transparent to non-technical people,” Jeff Fox, technology editor of Consumer Reports, said in a telephone interview. “Facebook is the custodian of all this information — they have a social responsibility to people who use this service.”

Consumers who do use privacy settings may not be aware of the kinds of information Facebook collects from users and non-users, such as reports for every visit to a website with a “like” button on it, according to the report.

Facebook responded by saying its “more than 900 million consumers have voluntarily decided to share and connect on Facebook because we provide them options and tools that place them in control of their information and experience,” according to an e-mailed statement from Andrew Noyes, a company spokesman. “As part of our effort to empower and educate consumers, we always welcome constructive conversations about online privacy and safety.”

Consumer Reports, based in Yonkers, New York, released its most extensive review of Facebook after a January survey of about 2,000 adults with a home Internet connection.

An estimated 39 million U.S. users of Facebook have identified a family member on the website, while 4.8 million have disclosed where they’re going on a certain day, Consumer Reports said, using figures extrapolated from the survey respondents’ answers.

About 4.7 million pressed a button to “like” a page about a health condition, revealing information an insurer might use against them, according to the report. The magazine also estimated that in 2011, 7 million households had security issues such as someone using their log-ins, a 30 percent increase from the year before.

All the information can build up a file. The Facebook file for one Austrian law student included 1,222 pages of data for three years of activity, according to the magazine. The data were in 57 categories, including the date and time of log-ins and longitude and latitude of last known geographic location, Consumer Reports said.

Facebook collects “the same type of detailed information on American users,” the magazine reported, citing documents released by the company to Boston police.

Facebook users’ friends can transfer data to a third party using one of the applications tied to the site’s platform, even if a user made that information private, Consumer Reports said.

“Even users who adjust those settings can be surprised by where their information winds up,” according to the article.

While children under the age of 13 aren’t allowed on the site under Facebook rules, about 5.6 million of them use it anyway, according to the article. Facebook removed about 800,000 such accounts in the past year, Consumer Reports estimated.

Facebook appreciates publicity on the issue of children’s use of the site because the attention may help ensure that younger kids don’t lie about their ages, said Noyes, the Facebook spokesman, in an e-mail.

“Just as parents are always teaching and reminding kids how to cross the road safely, talking about Internet safety should be just as important a lesson to learn,” Noyes said.

Facebook said last month it would let its users get reports that enable them to see more of their own personal data that the service gathers as they navigate the site. That move may give consumers more control over how information is used.

Facebook and Google, operator of the most-used search engine, are among companies facing scrutiny over their handling of consumer data. The Obama administration is pushing Congress to enact a privacy bill of rights giving individuals more control of their personal information online.

Because some users are becoming wary, about a quarter of the site’s U.S. members falsify information in their profiles, according to Fox, the magazine’s technology editor. That’s a jump from 10 percent two years ago, he said.

“That just suggests that people are becoming self-defensive or feeling they need to resort to that,” he said.

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