(CNN) — Facebook and online privacy: For several years now, it’s been hard to talk about one without talking about the other.
And Facebook’s latest offering, called Home, is no exception.
Facebook Home is an Android app that acts like a skin, updating the standard Android mobile operating system with a more modern, Facebooky decor. The Android home screen is replaced with a graphic version of the Facebook news feed that automatically flips through the latest happenings from your friends. The phone’s home page has additional Facebook features for posting to the site and communicating with friends.
Facebook Home is a more convenient way for heavy Facebook users to use the social network’s services. It is also a more powerful tool for Facebook to potentially collect information about a person, and it gives the company more ways and places to serve up ads.
This is a tricky balancing act for Facebook, which makes the majority of its revenue on advertising. Knowing more information about a person means Facebook can better target ads to them, and make more money.
Some pundits and privacy experts are already raising concerns about the potential for data grabs by Facebook. Om Malik of the site GigaOm says, “this application erodes any idea of privacy. If you install this, then it is very likely that Facebook is going to be able to track your every move, and every little action.”
And Parker Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Digital Trends: “They will get information about who you’re calling, how often, and how long you’re speaking to them. That’s a lot of information, and combined with the rest of your Facebook communications, (it) could paint a very clear picture of your private life.”
So what will be collected?
On a regular phone, Facebook’s data collecting powers are limited to what you do inside the official Facebook mobile app or on the site in a browser.
Facebook Home frees Facebook from that prison and gives it wider rein to collect more information about a person’s location, actions and communications.
Built-in GPS technology means smartphones know where a person is at any given time. Phones with Facebook Home could access this information at any time to determine what businesses or neighborhoods you visit the most or even where you live. That data could then be used to serve up a more personalized ad, such as a coupon for a store you’re near or coffee shop you visit every Sunday.
A Facebook representative told CNN that Home will not actively track users’ GPS location.
In addition to any Facebook messages or calls you already send or make, Facebook Home pulls SMS text messages into the mix. Who you talk to, when you talk to them and, in the case of text messages, what you talk about are possibly fertile grounds for data collection.
Third-party apps are also part of the Facebook Home ecosystem, though in a somewhat limited way.
“For a small randomized rolling subset of users, we will be collecting information … around what applications you launch and when,” the Facebook spokesman told CNN in an e-mail. “We do not collect any information about your activity within third-party apps.”
People already willingly share much of this information with Facebook. But Facebook Home, running in the background on your phone, will make it easier for the company to quietly collect data on everything you do. The difference is between actively sharing information — uploading an image with location data, checking into a restaurant or other business — and passively sharing it (what the tech companies like to call “frictionless” sharing).
In other words, telling Facebook where you are, who your friends are and what apps you like won’t be optional, it will be automatic.
Facebook said Home requires no new privacy controls and will respect all existing privacy settings.
Will Facebook fans care?
Facebook has long been plagued by privacy concerns over confusing privacy controls and data mining, but such worries don’t seem to have had any significant impact on its core users. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 61% of Facebook users have taken a break from the social networking site, but only 4% cited privacy concerns as a reason.
Facebook Home, which launches on April 12, isn’t being forced on anyone. Downloading the app is entirely optional, as is buying a new HTC phone with Home preinstalled. Much of the outrage over past Facebook privacy issues has been because they were mandatory and affected everyone.
Many of the Facebook faithful may have resigned themselves to the idea that what they do on the site is tracked — a fair enough exchange for a free service that keeps them in contact with friends, family and people they sort of knew in middle school.
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