Wed, Sep 21, 2011 | my paper
By Kenny Chee
LAST month, many netizens were horrified to learn that Facebook has been publishing mobile-phone numbers alongside their online friends' profiles.
Many were disturbed that this also meant that their numbers could be visible to people with whom they did not intend to share such information.
Although a new consumer data-protection law is expected to kick in here next year, I don't think it will help much in such instances.
I have not been too bothered by the Facebook scare because my friends on the social-networking site are people I know quite well.
But imagine the implications if you had grudgingly "befriended" an acquaintance at a friend's party just because he kept bugging you.
What about that stranger you "recruited" randomly as a friend for a Facebook game?
What if these people turn out to be pesky salesmen? Or, worse, scammers and cybercrooks?
Besides, what does Facebook do with all our contact details?
To be fair to the site, publishing mobile numbers isn't new. And you can use your privacy settings to control who can see your number.
According to The New York Times, last month's brouhaha arose from rumours spreading online saying: "Friends! All the phone numbers in your phone are now published on Facebook!"
But things aren't quite as sinister as they seem.
With Facebook, you can choose to add your mobile number to your online profile. However, you can adjust your settings such that only friends can see the number.
You can also see the phone numbers of Facebook friends if you synchronise your cellphone contacts with the site.
Your phone number could also be visible to friends if you gave it to Facebook for authentication purposes, said Internet security firm Sophos.
Facebook says this helps you regain control of your account if you lose access to it.
But you may have forgotten to uncheck a tiny box that says "Let my friends see my number" before hitting the submit button. This overrides your previous privacy settings. So, if you didn't read the terms and conditions carefully, it's really your fault for giving away your friends' numbers to Facebook or allowing the site to publish your number.
Issues with how a company collects and uses your digital data are not unique to Facebook.
A number of apps and several mobile operating systems collect information about you, such as your whereabouts, without being upfront about it.
They include popular mobile games like Angry Birds.
Can the proposed consumer data-protection law force the firms behind these products and services to be more transparent?
The Government proposed last week that companies seek a user's permission before collecting and using his data in specified ways. But it's unclear how much consent is required.
For example, is Facebook's opt-out style of publishing information about you acceptable?
Another issue is where the companies providing the products and services are located.
If they don't have a presence in Singapore, like Angry Birds developer Rovio from Finland, they are not restricted by our laws. So it's difficult for the data- protection law to apply to them, legal experts said.
One way to hit back at such firms, should they breach the law, is for the authorities to prevent them from offering their services here, said lawyers. Companies here could also be prevented from dealing with them.
But since our market isn't big, could this prompt foreign firms to give us a miss? Can you live without Facebook?
That scenario is unlikely to play out for popular services already entrenched here. This means errant overseas firms could get away with misusing your data. However, there might be recourse if your data is stored here.
Mr Clement Goh, managing director of American data-centre operator Equinix's Singapore operations, said firms offering a social network or an e-mail service would likely want to store related data in or close to Singapore if there are many users here.
This helps to cut down delays when transmitting data for these services, he said.
He added that many companies in the region tend to choose Hong Kong or Singapore to store data for online services and content providers.
So, there's a high chance that Singaporeans' data collected by firms could be kept here, where it would be protected by the new law.
But companies may find the new law too annoying to comply with, prompting them to move the data to another country and allowing them to continue misusing your information.
Where do these uncertainties leave us? Possibly back to square one.
So a word of advice: Depend on yourself, not the law alone, to protect your digital data.
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