Could Data Portability emerge as Facebook’s Achilles heel?

7 Oct 2010

Facebook’s Data Portability feature that allows you to download all your content and data into a single Zip file could emerge as a potential thorn in the social networking giant’s side. It also represents a missed opportunity to sort out concerns over privacy.

With the new feature you now can download everything you’ve ever posted on Facebook and all your correspondences with friends, in a few easy steps.

The Data Portability feature is both revolutionary and bothersome. What if – like many have discovered to their peril and chagrin – you forgot to log out of Facebook and all your data was grabbed or misused for nefarious purposes?

Through the new feature, the data can be viewed in your web browser and will be easy to access and sort through as opposed to being a jumble of unstructured information.

By accessing the “Download Your Information” feature from your account settings, users just hit the download button and Facebook will allow you to download everything off your profile, including your friends list, events, all of your messages, wall posts and all of your photos into a zip file.

Also among the changes announced yesterday by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg were tighter control over ‘Groups’ and a dashboard amongst the Facebook privacy interface to show what Facebook applications have access to users’ data.

Computer security experts at Sophos, however, are concerned that although these changes suggest a step in the right direction towards protecting personal information online, they may add complexity, rather than improving online safety.

Missed opportunity

Paul Ducklin, Sophos’ head of technology, Asia Pacific, argues that the latest changes implemented by Facebook, may well simply be another missed opportunity to get the fundamentals right.

“Adding more security-related dashboards, buttons and knobs is a start, I guess,” says Ducklin. “But I, and many others, think that Facebook would do better to make a real grassroots change to its security.”

Ducklin wants to see Facebook adopt a completely opt-in model, in which you can sign up as easily as you can today, but can’t do much at all on the site until you have decided to open up each feature.

In a poll conducted by Sophos earlier this year, 93pc of those asked said they would prefer to “opt-in” rather than “opt-out” of sharing their information with others.

“No doubt Facebook shareholders looking forward to the IPO will want to maximise the number of users and the openness and availability of the information posted,” continued Ducklin.

“But Facebook is influential enough now, I reckon, to make bigger long-term gains by getting ahead of the regulatory curve than by waiting until legislators force them to change their opt-in/opt-out attitudes.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years