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Sci-Tech

Facebook's new messaging feature raises privacy questions

Facebook is entering the e-mail business with a new feature, but don't call it e-mail! And some are wondering if the social network's privacy policies are strong enough.

The social media site has more than 500 million users

At a press conference in San Francisco, California on Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the latest of the social networking platform’s innovations, Facebook Messages.

With this announcement, Facebook, which counts more than 500 million users, is pushing into Google's turf with this e-mail-like service. Although Zuckerberg would be quick to say Messages is not e-mail, Facebook users will have an @facebook.com address once the system is released, so it definitely looks similar.

One of the features of Messages highlighted in the press conference is its archival function, basically storing all records of messages sent between parties. Given some of Facebook's history with privacy issues, this feature could create some discomfort for less public users.

A digital shoebox

Facebook's messaging system has always been integral to the platform, providing users with a slightly less public forum for discussion than publishing everything on "Facebook Walls," the bulletin boards that display the activities of a user.

Facebook's latest plans have created a media stir

With Messages, Zuckerberg says the concept is to "flatten" the landscape of communication. Teens, he said at the press conference, prefer SMS over e-mail because the latter is too slow, whereas others strictly use e-mail or instant messaging to talk to their friends and family. So Facebook intends to use Messages to aggregate these three different means of communication into one conversation. One user may send an SMS, another might reply with an e-mail, but both messages appear on Facebook as part of a conversation.

The result, Facebook says, will be a continuous collection of conversation history between friends. The image used in promotional material by Facebook is that Messages will be analogous to the boxes of letters people once used to collect and cherish, as a way to remember the course of a relationship.

But what about privacy?

As the new system is gradually rolled out, users will be able to send and receive e-mails with their new @facebook.com e-mail address. At first, Facebook users will only receive mail from their Facebook friends, with all other mail going into an Other or a Junk mail folder. But users may "promote" mail from these folders to their primary folders if they wish.

The conversation history will be stored on Facebook, which could raise security concerns for some. When asked about an option for "off the record" conversations at the press conference, Zuckerberg responded that users would have the option to delete threads or messages, but that "off the record" doesn't make sense.

In the past, Facebook has weathered criticism for some of the wording in their Terms of Use, which in February 2009, briefly seemed to state that Facebook would own any content a user uploaded to the public site, in perpetuity. Facebook and Zuckerberg quickly moved to douse the flames of public outcry and released a new Terms of Use with the section on privacy right up at the top which states, "You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings."

You can't win (or lose) if you don't play

It's up to the user to decide how much to reveal

It is in Facebook's best interest to have as much sharing and openness between people as possible, because it is in the business of creating connections between people (and brands). But of course, phishers and scam artists see that sort of openness and the plethora of personal information as an all-you-can-eat buffet and Facebook can be dangerous waters for the uninitiated in Internet security.

As the social media news hub Mashable pointed out, a record of saved e-mail conversations is nothing new. Most people's e-mail clients are clogged with old conversations, but Mashable thinks that having a written record of all communication in proximity to the host of potentially personal information within Facebook, could make for a dangerous mixture.

But the bottom line is that Facebook, or any potential scam artists trying to take advantage of the data Facebook contains, can only hurt users to the extent that they have shared important information with Facebook. Of course, the more information a user gives Facebook, the more complete, and perhaps rewarding, a user’s experience can be, but similarly, the more exposed they are.

Author: Stuart Tiffen
Editor: Kristin Zeier

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