Facebook is taking major steps to ensure privacy of its 2 billion plus users. As part of a major privacy overhaul, the social media giant has announced a number of changes to how it handles user data, and has removed the option to look for friends on the platform using their phone number.
The ability to search for friends on Facebook using their phone number made it easier to find one another, especially in countries where a lot of people have a common first name. In a blog post, Facebook explains that criminals have “abused these features to scrape public profile information by submitting phone numbers or email addresses they already have through search and account recovery”.
The new announcement comes after the company revealed that UK-based big data firm Cambridge Analytica was able to scrape data of 87 million users, which is higher than the previous estimate of 50 million users. It also confirmed that the public data of all of its 2 billion plus users has been subjected to some or the other kind data harvesting at some time. It has also taken steps to limit the data available to third-party apps.
In an interview with CNN, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed that the platform trusted third-party developers with data without curtailing their reach. In order to further limit the access to user data, Facebook is tightening the review process for apps that request access to user photos and posts, and it says apps are no longer allowed to request sensitive data including marital status, religious views, education or work history. These are the type of data that enabled organizations like Cambridge Analytica to create psychograph of Facebook users.
Facebook also confirmed that its Messenger and Facebook Lite apps gather call and text history of its users when they opt-in for the service. However, it reiterated the previous claims that it doesn’t access the content of any messages and plans to curtail the data it accesses from its users including messages and call logs.
The social network is under significant pressure from its users, advertisers and regulators around the world. Facebook confirmed that its CEO Mark Zuckerberg will testify before the US Congress on April 11 where he is likely to detail company’s new initiatives to protect user data. The new measures are an effort to paint a picture that Facebook has learnt from its mistake and is taking steps to protect user data.
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Over the next few weeks, Facebook will have a tough time explaining its work to US regulators, where its CEO is expected to be grilled for data abuse. There is no denial that Facebook has grown bigger than it ever imagined when Zuckerberg started the platform from his dorm room. It, however, seems to have forgotten the mantra that huge responsibilities lie in its hands and its exponential growth comes with huge risk as well. One of the key questions it needs to answer is how the company will strengthen its security features going forward, and will it ever be possible to delete everything Facebook knows about you.