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Is Facebook Exposing Users to Identity Theft?
Is Facebook Exposing Users to Identity Theft?

By Jennifer LeClaire
September 6, 2007 8:41AM

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Facebook engineer Philip Fung said Facebook's aim in making user information available through search engines is to help more people connect and find value from Facebook, but security experts are urging caution even in light of the fact that the new Facebook initiative does not disclose complete profile data to search engines.

Facebook announced a major change on Wednesday. The site is making certain user information available to people who are not logged in to the popular social network.

That means even non-Facebook members will be able to search for people who have registered with the site. People can simply type a name into the search box on Facebook's home page and view the returned listings. According to the company, the next step is to make that data available through search engines, including Google, Yahoo, and MSN.

"We're expanding search so that people can see which of their friends are on Facebook more easily," Facebook engineer Philip Fung wrote on the Facebook corporate blog. Quick to address concerns over privacy, he added, "The public search listing contains less information than someone could find right after signing up anyway, so we're not exposing any new information, and you have complete control over your public search listing."

Slim Detail Pickings

Fung said Facebook's aim in making user information available through search engines is to help more people connect and find value from Facebook without exposing any actual profile data. Business-oriented social-networking sites such as LinkedIn and Zoom Info are already making member profiles available for search engines.

The public search listing won't offer up much detail, according to an example Facebook offered on its blog. Specifically, the listing will include a photo and a name, with options to send the member a message or view the member's friends.

"As always, if you do not want your public search listing to be visible to people searching from outside of Facebook, you can control that from the search privacy page," Fung said, noting that members will only appear in searches outside Facebook when their search settings are set to "Everyone."

Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant and security firm Sophos, said Facebook's latest move does not present a great security risk. The search results won't reveal the member's date of birth, home address, or other information that could help an identity thief.

Guarding Against ID Theft

A test conducted on Facebook in August revealed that 41 percent of users readily hand out personally identifying information to strangers. Some 87 percent agreed to be friends with a fictional Freddi, and 82 percent offered Freddi an open view of their profiles. Those practices could put members at risk for boatloads of spam and targeted malware attacks.

Cluley warned not to post personally identifying information -- such as date of birth, mother's maiden name, snail mail addresses, and the fact that you are going on a California vacation for two weeks -- on Facebook profiles. "People unfortunately adopt this sort of Oprah mentality online," he said. "You don't need to post that kind of information. If people are your friends, they hopefully know a good thing or two about you already."

Cluley said he hopes the new Facebook initiative will raise awareness of the site's privacy settings and encourage members to update their settings so that only people they trust can read information about them. "Look at what other information you are putting on Facebook and who it's accessible to," he concluded, "because maybe you are at risk for identity theft."

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