Facebook is really, really good at coming up with new ideas, but reasonably well thought out ideas from Facebook seem a bit harder to come by.
This is an issue that recently came up when Facebook decided that they would start allowing third party developers to gather address and phone number information and share it with other people. It didn’t take long for more rational people to figure out that randomly giving out a 13 year old girl’s phone number was at best a completely mindless idea, although it might just be evil intent. You can see my interview on the subject for FOX TV if you wish to. After receiving significant negative publicity AND congressional attention, Facebook decided that maybe they better see how they can implement the “feature” AFTER they take into account their duty to at least attempt to protect minors.
Recently a Facebook “feature” rolled out in 2007 has re-emerged in the news. This is in regard to Facebook retaining the right to allow advertiser’s to use profile pictures to promote goods and services. The problem is that this can easily result in a minor’s picture being used without their parent’s knowledge or consent, even if the child does not have a Facebook account. Here is how it works. You sign up for Facebook. Being the wonderfully proud parent that you are, you decide it is really cute to use your child’s picture for your profile picture. Life is good, grandma and grandpa get to see their little angel every time they go to your profile. All of the sudden, without telling you when or where, Facebook decides that your child’s picture is fair game to use in advertisements however they see fit, and it is your job to know that you must opt out of something that is deliberately obscured in order to prevent your kid’s picture from being used to promote products and services on Facebook.
Some kids earn money for college for being in advertisements. On Facebook, they can just silently appropriate the pictures to advertisers without notifying you that they are putting your child’s picture in an advertisement.
In a misguided attempt to calm users, Helen A.S. Popkin posted an article titled “Calm down! Facebook isn't sharing your profile pic”. Helen accurately points out that very best urban legends are based in facts. The difference between this and an urban legend is the fact that on the Facebook Ads setting page it is Facebook who states unequivocally that “If a photo is used, it is your profile photo and not from your photo albums.” Helen should have done her fact finding research before deciding if something was fact or fiction. Facebook has automatically opted you in so that at any moment they can share your profile picture with advertisers.
In an ideal world everyone would be opted OUT of Facebook’s child exploitation policy. Everyone would be warned explicitly about the real ramifications of participation in their “social actions” advertising scheme. Babies would not be unwitting proponents of products without explicit parental consent.
If you like the talking baby advertisements already on TV, you are going to love it when little 5 year old Lisa “likes” Jack Daniels. Facebook retains the right to make this a reality.
Director of Technical Education
Cyber Threat Analysis Center
ESET North America
Author ESET Research, We Live Security