by Elizabeth Kricfalusi, Tech for Luddites
There seems to have been a rash of incidents on Facebook over the last couple of days where people are getting notifications that they have viewed one of their friend's profiles or that one of their friends has viewed theirs—even when neither of these things has happened in recent memory. This hasn't happened to me (yet) so I'm trying to piece together exactly what's happening, and this is what I've discovered so far.
Facebook does NOT track who views whom.
Some online services do offer you the opportunity to see who has been looking at your profile. LinkedIn does, for example, as do many online dating sites (or so I've heard—cough, cough...).
However, Facebook does not provide this option, as explicitly stated in this Help entry:
Whether or not they actually can track this information themselves, and simply don't share it, is another question that I do not have the answer to.
Also, as stated above, Facebook does not allow third-party applications to do this automatically. However...
Some third-party applications offer this "feature."
There are applications you can install on Facebook that claim to provide this option, i.e. that you can see who has been looking at your profile. Some of them publicize themselves to make it sound like they're helping you identify if you're being stalked by someone. Others are probably just appealing to a natural curiosity that people have about who might be checking them out.
You can only get this information if you actually add the application to your account and explicitly give permission for it to do so. So, on the face of it, it sounds harmless. But there are three serious issues related to what seems to actually be happening:
- They're publishing the information to other people. Unlike with LinkedIn, where only you can see who has been viewing your profile, these FB apps are sharing that information with your friends, which you may not have expected when you gave them permission to access your account.
In some cases, they're publishing images to your Photos page that shows the profile pics of several of your friends and a comment—supposedly from you—that says, ""Try it, really works!!". It also includes a link to a page that I'm assuming either tries to get you to add the app yourself, or worse. (I won't click on it myself to see what actually happens...) Then, if one of your friends has his/her notifications set up to get an email whenever they're tagged in a photo, they get alerted to this image.
In another case I'm aware of, the person's friends received a posting on their Walls saying, "X has checked your profile", which is not only the opposite of why you would add the application (you want to know who's looking at you, not tell people you're looking at them), but also...
- The information isn't true. In the first case, above, a friend of mine was tagged as being one of the top viewers of another person's profile even though s/he hasn't done so in months and certainly never did it frequently. In the second case, the person hadn't recently looked at any of the profile pages of the people who suddenly got notices that s/he'd looked at them.
I don't know how these apps determine who they claim was doing the viewing, but it's quite possible they're just randomly picking people from your list of friends (which all third-party apps have access to because Facebook unilaterally decided this is "public information.")
- Your friends have no way of opting out of this. As mentioned above, when you add an application, you're not just giving them permission to access your information, you're giving them permission to access a certain amount of your friends' information as well. While people can set some restrictions on what information their friends can share about them*, they can't prevent you from sharing at least their name and profile picture. The only way to prevent seeing their names show up in these locations would be to unfriend you altogether—which is probably not something you were intending when adding the app in the first place.
So all that to say that these applications are not providing some wonderfully helpful service to you. They're scamming you by mining data that they could use to sell to marketing organizations—legitimate or otherwise—or for even more malicious purposes, such as spreading viruses and other malware.
Facebook has been removing some of these applications as they find them but your best bet is simply to avoid them in the first place. Don't click on links to pages that you don't know where they're taking you and don't add applications that you haven't checked out first (e.g. legitimate references from friends).
*Note: Regarding the issue of third-party applications having access to your friends' data, that also means your data is being shared when your friends sign up for apps, even ones you have nothing to do with. While you can't prevent them from accessing your name, profile picture. or other information they deem to be public (which also includes gender, city, and Pages you're a fan of) you can prevent them from accessing other data. To see what you're currently allowing to be shared (and prepare to be surprised), go to Account > Privacy Settings > Applications and Websites > What Your Friends Can Share About You > Edit Settings. If you don't want total strangers to know your religious and political views, for example, make sure that option is unchecked.
As I mentioned earlier, I may not have all the information about what's going on, so if you have more you can share, please send it to me and I'll update this post.
Last Updated: March 15, 2010