RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Facebook got snagged in yet another privacy issue yesterday. A Wall Street Journal article revealed that applications on the site were sharing personal information with outside companies. Many of the popular games and applications on Facebook, like "Farmville" and "Mafia Wars," do give notice that the game will access some personal information, yet the users play anyway. NPR's Laura Sydell looks at why users give up their information so easily, and whether they should be more careful.
LAURA SYDELL: I get a note from a friend to join them in a game of Farmville and help them purchase a row of pumpkins. Maybe your friends try to get you to plant some pumpkins, too. When I click on it, a notice comes up. They want to know who my friends are, what my user ID is, my birthday, and where I live. Unless I give it up, I can't play the game. And I want to play.
P: We tend to weigh more heavily the pleasure that we'll get out of the immediate reward than the risk that may be long term and further off.
SYDELL: Laurie Cranor is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and an expert on marketing strategies and privacy. And when it comes to privacy, she says, many people are having a hard time really understanding the risks.
P: We see all sorts of security warnings pop up on our screen, and we've gotten so used to just kind of swatting them away. And it's very rare that anything bad ever happens to us.
SYDELL: In the case of "Farmville," nearly 60 million people have given up their information to play on Facebook. Consumer privacy advocate Jeff Chester.
MONTAGNE: Their business model is harvesting not just these virtual vegetables, but the data about you.
P: So if they know who your friends are, they can go check their credit history, and they can see whether they've defaulted on loans and things like that. And that gives them insight into whether you might do that.
SYDELL: But it's not just Facebook. Take free, online mortgage calculators, says privacy advocate Jeff Chester. Banks are watching to see what you plug in.
MONTAGNE: Companies are devising all kind of schemes offering quizzes and contests and, you know, free calculators to get people to give up their data and information - that's then sold and resold and used.
SYDELL: Right now, banks say they aren't trolling the web for personal information. But the world of social games and data mining is very new. Kenneth Lin, the CEO of Credit Karma, a credit score website, thinks with big money on the line, it's only a matter of time.
MONTAGNE: Banks and credit card companies will - really, use any data that's available to them to get an edge over the competitor, to determine who is more credit-risky.
SYDELL: Health-insurance companies may also try to mine online data. A couple of years ago, there was a case of a health insurer who tried to access the Facebook and MySpace accounts of a teen with an eating disorder, to deny her coverage. No one really knows what will happen with all that data online, says privacy consultant Robert Gellman.
MONTAGNE: People don't know what's going on. And a lot of times in a lot of circumstances, they have no rights with respect to the information they've given up. But the companies that collect that information can basically do anything they want with it.
LYDELL: Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
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