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Does Facebook's 'People You May Know' Feature Put Users at Risk?


When Facebook began, it was all about connecting with friends. It may have lost its way over the years, becoming ever more focused on business and promotion while posts from friends are lost among the rabble, but connections are still at the core of the service. Now however, it is the 'friending' part of the service that has come under scrutiny.

Specifically, it's the 'people you may know' feature that has been called into question. On the most part it's innocent enough, if you ignore the fact that these recommendations come from Zuckerberg's team mining through your precious personal data, but in some industries it is causing some distinct problems.

One account from a psychiatrist identified only as Lisa, reported on by Fusion.net, highlights some massive safety and privacy issues. You see, Facebook makes many of these recommendations based upon the phone numbers in your address book, which many of you will have allowed the social media giant access to. It is possible to deny Facebook this particular permission, but the average user is unlikely to have done so.

As you may expect, most if not all of Lisa's patients had her phone number in their address book. This led to the site recommending many of her patients to her as potential friends, but that's not the real issue.

The problem is, because multiple patients had her number saved, and many of them allowed Facebook access to their contacts, they started seeing each other pop up as recommendations. This was highlighted to Lisa when one patient, an outlier among her typically elderly patients as a snowboarder in his 30's, starting seeing many of the older generation suggested under 'people you may know'. Suspecting the true cause, he mentioned this to Lisa, who was unable to confirm his suspicions due to patient confidentiality laws. She, however, knew that he was correct.

Another patient of Lisa's had a fellow patient appear whom she recognised from the psychiatrist's office, meaning she now had access to the full name, address and many other personal details of a potentially vulnerable patient.

Speaking to New Statesman, Dr Dawn Burkley, a health and social psychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of internet and technology use, warned that the consequences of this could be "particulary problematic". -

"In addition to breaching patient confidentiality through allowing clients to identify one another, this could also raise issues over the triggering of negative behaviour. For example, it could encourage communication between vulnerable users or draw users’ attention to social media profiles which may include images or posts that could trigger negative health behaviour."

The potential ramifications of this among industries dealing with sensitive information are quite worrying. For now, the best approach is caution. Be very selective about what you post online, and what information you allow these companies to gather from you, particularly if you're in a similar position to Lisa.



Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. Currently working as Editor of Social Songbird, he hopes to one day drop that 'aspiring' prefix. Follow him @Songbird_Sam

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Does Facebook's 'People You May Know' Feature Put Users at Risk? Reviewed by Sam Bonson on Tuesday, September 06, 2016 Rating: 5

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