Your Phone Numbers and Facebook: What You Should Actually Worry About


If you’re on Facebook, you’ve likely seen the panicky message that’s been circulating, warning that the social networking behemoth has started publishing all your phone contacts for everybody to see:

“ALL THE PHONE NUMBERS IN YOUR PHONE are now PUBLISHED on Facebook! Go to the top right of the screen, click on Account, then click on Edit Friends, go left on the screen and click on Contacts. Then go to the right hand side and click on “visit page” to remove this display option. Please repost this on your Status, so your friends can remove their numbers and thus prevent abuse if they do not want them published.”

But as quickly as the alarm bells sounded, they were squelched. Facebook released a statement explaining that the stampede was unfounded:

“Rumors claiming that your phone contacts are visible to everyone on Facebook are false. Our Contacts list, formerly called Phonebook, has existed for a long time. The phone numbers listed there were either added directly to Facebook and shared with you by your friends, or you have previously synced your phone contacts with Facebook. Just like on your phone, only you can see these numbers.”

True enough: Facebook isn’t publishing all your contacts’ phone numbers for all to see. Only you can see them.

Adding to the soothing sounds calming the spooked Facebook herd were posts on TechCrunch, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

“Facebook’s action is not nearly as nefarious as it seems,” the Times promised, assuring readers that the scare was really just a misunderstanding. The Facebook folks are just geeky engineers who think about functionality, but aren’t so good at explaining their good intentions to people. Sure, they have a lot of information about you and your friends, but really, they have only our best interests at heart.

“In spite of the alarmist tone of the message circulating Facebook, this isn’t particularly alarming,” Sam Grobart concluded for the Times. “Does having that information necessarily lead to Facebook doing something terrible with it? No.”

So perfectly did the Times piece communicate Facebook’s corporate nothing-to-see-here message that Facebook’s PR team began linking to it in emails to reporters who wanted more information.

But not everyone is appeased. After all, it isn’t just you who can see your Facebook contact list. Facebook can, too. And Facebook doesn’t exactly have a great track record of living up to its promises to protect users’ privacy.

“The company routinely discloses more personal information than users intended or expected,” says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has challenged Facebook over its plans to allow third-party developers to access users’ addresses and home telephone numbers. “Until the FTC acts, these problems will continue.”

Facebook’s statement doesn’t quite tell the whole story of what happens when you sync your phone contacts with your Facebook account, either. The company isn’t just collecting the phone numbers your friends have already made public on Facebook. It’s also hoovering up all of the contact information on your phone, even for people who aren’t Facebook users.

So even if you’re a conscientious privacy-paranoiac who has never given Facebook your phone number or even joined up at all, there’s a good chance Mark Zuckerberg has your phone number in his database anyway. What’s he doing with it?

Well for one thing, he’s pinging you with unsolicited spam every two weeks, inviting you to join Facebook already, and will continue to do so until your friend — or client, or boss, or anyone else who keeps your number in their phone — changes their settings.

But is Facebook doing anything more nefarious with the phone numbers of non-Facebook users? Does Facebook use the relationships revealed by my phone contacts in any way other than listing them for me in the Contacts List? What are Facebook’s commitments about whether it will ever make the numbers of Facebook users (and their non-Facebook-user contacts) available to third parties?

We asked these questions several times to the PR agency handling this issue for Facebook, and haven’t gotten an answer yet. We’ll update the post when we do.

In the meantime, if you have already synced your phone contacts with your Facebook account, you can undo that by clicking here. (You have to already be signed in to Facebook.) Your friends may thank you.