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Facebook denies stealing users’ mobile phone books

Facebook is denying “rumours” that everyone’s mobile phone contact list has been uploaded onto the social networking site for all to see but the issue has reignited the debate on privacy and some questions remain.

Some weeks ago, word began to spread among Facebook users that everyone’s phone book had been placed on the site without their authorisation.

The contact list could be accessed by clicking on Account (at the top right of one’s screen), Edit Friends and then (on the left of the screen) Contacts. On this page, each Facebook user will find the mobile numbers of many of their friends. In some cases, these are people who would have never uploaded their number on Facebook or would not even have been on your friends’ list but whom you would have had on your mobile phone’s contact list.

On Wednesday, Facebook posted this explanation on its official page: “Our Contacts list, formerly called Phonebook, has existed for a long time. The phone numbers listed there were either added by your friends themselves and made visible to you or you have previously synced your phone contacts with Facebook. Just like on your phone, only you can see these numbers.”

Almost 35,000 Facebook users “liked” this explanation but close to 10,000 other users commented, many still infuriated and worried about their privacy being invaded.

A number of Facebook users in Malta have condemned the recent development and questioned whether Facebook had access to all these phone numbers and sold them to third parties such as advertising companies.

When contacted to see whether the complaints could be addressed, Stefano Hesse, Facebook’s head of communications for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said this feature was designed to give fast and easy access to people’s contacts. “For instance, if you get a new phone, rather than having to ask all your friends to send you their numbers again, you can find them on Facebook.”

He stressed that the data was owned by each user and “is not sold to anyone, as anything on Facebook”.

“The entries on your Contacts List that are a combination of information from your smartphone and your Facebook account are available only to you.”

He explained that some people volunteered their numbers to be accessible to their friends, or all users, on Facebook. This would automatically place them in one’s Contact List.

However, when smartphone users opt to sync their Facebook list of friends with their phone’s contact list, the numbers of people in their phone’s contact book now attach themselves to the respective Facebook profiles. This means one can now access their phone numbers from one’s Facebook contact list even if they never placed their number directly on Facebook.

“Your Contacts List page is the result of that sync and it shows each entry with whatever of the following information is available between your phone and your Facebook account: links to profile pages, profile pictures, e-mail addresses and phone numbers.”

But many Facebook users say they were never told exactly that this was what syncing their phone to Facebook meant.

Still, Facebook insists, no one has access to this infor­mation except the user. And if that does not convince the user, one can remove any data which Facebook took from one’s mobile phone by accessing this link www.facebook.com/contact_importer/remove_uploads.php?r=%2Fphonebook.

Meanwhile, a video claiming to be produced by the hacking group Anonymous has waged war on Facebook, accusing it of supplying private data of its users to governments and security agencies. It threatened to bring down Facebook on November 5.

The official Anonymous group has since denied its link with the video.

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