Facebook clears up iPhone app Contact Sync hype

Yesterday I wrote a blog about the Facebook Contact Sync feature for iPhone, which syncs the contact details of everyone on your iPhone and matches them to your Facebook friends. The blog referenced a number of media reports, including this piece...

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Yesterday I wrote a blog about the Facebook Contact Sync feature for iPhone, which syncs the contact details of everyone on your iPhone and matches them to your Facebook friends.

The blog referenced a number of media reports, including this piece in The Guardian, that had claimed: "Uploads from iPhones using the Facebook app will push all your contacts onto Facebook's servers - where they'll be matched against any and everyone. "

Facebook has since responded to my press enquiry to clear up some inaccuracies in the original report, and also to explain the Contact Sync feature in more depth.

A Facebook spokesperson said: "Facebook Phonebook uses the information in the way that has been prescribed in the privacy settings of the individual. So if their contact details are on your phone, but they don't allow their number to be made public on Facebook, the privacy setting on Facebook will override the fact they are in your iPhone."

She continued: "Also, just to point out that only you can see your Phonebook on Facebook; it can’t be seen by anyone else. This is the same as online phonebooks or email contact lists many people already have.

"People also have the ability to control who sees their contact information through their privacy settings - this includes the ability to make your mobile number visible to only a few select friends or of course you don’t have to include one at all."

I also asked whether Facebook Phonebook information is shared with third parties, such as advertisers. "Facebook never shares personally identifiable information with third parties - advertisers are only given anonymised and aggregated data."

I asked her about the number of reports that claim the Contact Sync feature was inaccurately matching the details of the wrong people to phone numbers (examples here and here). She said Facebook is looking at each specific case of reported syncing inaccuracies, as each case is quite different. She also advised people to use the Help Centre if they had any further issues.  

Facebook's spokesperson also emailed me a statement. Here it is in full:

"As part of our service, we allow people to sync their friends contact information and profile picture from Facebook to their phone and vice versa. Giving people the ability to sync their contacts is used for the purpose of connecting with their friends, and for NO other purpose. ALL of this information is private and is not shared with any friends or any third party. Even if someone wanted to, they could not share any of this information with other friends, for example.

People can always easily delete contacts which were copied from their phone to Facebook on this page:
http://www.facebook.com/contact_importer/remove_uploads.php
 
Background Points:
There are four key points to note:
·    There is a clear disclaimer before the owner of the phone can activate this feature and copy data from their phone to Facebook.
·    All the data copied from the phone to Facebook is private. It is not shared with any friends, any third party. Even if they want to, the user can not share that data with other friends, for example.
·    In the sake of transparency, the user can see the copy of their phone address book at the url here: http://www.facebook.com/phonebook
·    And the user can delete contacts which were copied from their phone to Facebook on this page: http://www.facebook.com/contact_importer/remove_uploads.php
There are a few differences between the Facebook mobile applications. These are due to the fact we shipped these apps at different times, using whatever technologies and APIs which were available at that time. But our goal is to bring all three experiences to the same state:
 
Data copied from Facebook to the phone:
The iPhone and Blackberry applications add the Facebook profile pictures of your friends to existing contacts on the phone.
The Android application creates new records in the phone address book for each of your Facebook friends. The records include profile picture and contact info.

Data copied from the phone to Facebook (when the user activates this feature):
iPhone and Blackberry copy the name, phone number and email address of your contacts in your phone.


Facebook advises people to set their privacy settings, and take the time to learn how to use the service properly. "Facebook is a free service and something that many people find adds value to their day-to-day lives. As with any service, users do need to invest some time in order to use it properly and we encourage people to use their privacy settings to do this and to access the Help Centre for support."

In short, simple guidelines will avoid most problems, but it still comes down to the user to set their privacy setting. If you want your phone number to be visible to your friends, then you need to tweak your privacy settings (found here). As referenced in yesterday's blog, AllFacebook has an excellent step-by-step guide to help you make your phone number invisible.