Privacy questions trail Facebook Messages

Beset with privacy problems in the past, the focus is on Facebook's new messaging system

After Facebook's struggle with one privacy issue after another this year, some in the industry are raising privacy questions about Facebook's new messaging system .

On Monday, the social network unveiled Facebook Messages, a system designed to handle the convergence of different kinds of messages - e-mail, instant messaging, SMS and Facebook messages -- and bring them together under one social umbrella. Users will be able to have their own e-mail address, but the system also will work with other e-mail systems, including Google's Gmail and Yahoo mail.

As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained the new system at a press conference in San Francisco on Monday, never touched on how the company plans on keeping users' messages private and secure.

That raised some eyebrows and a bit of ire online Monday.

And industry analysts are wondering how Facebook is going to step up and take on this issue.

"The more Facebook puts itself in a position to receive, store and safeguard the most private communications we have, the more Facebook will need to be vigilant to protect privacy and guard against hacking and data theft," said Augie Ray, an analyst with market research firm Forrester. "When Facebook was primarily about open communications, such as status updates, this threat wasn't as great. But now that Facebook is increasingly facilitating private communications through features like Groups, Places and Messaging, it requires Facebook do more to protect that data."

And if Facebook fails to keep users' messages private, the backlash against the network could be damaging, according to Ray.

"Failure to do so can result in substantial loss of trust with Facebook and could cause consumers to abandon all or parts of Facebook," he added.

Privacy issues surrounding Facebook Messages are likely to receive extra scrutiny because Facebook has had to react to criticism of its privacy policies recently.

Just last month, two members of Congress sent a letter to Zuckerberg asking questions about privacy issues surrounding some of the site's most popular applications. Facebook had just admitted that applications made for the social network, such as FarmVille, Texas HoldEm Poker and FrontierVille, have been sending users' personal information to dozens of advertising and Internet monitoring companies.

And in August, Facebook developers had to quickly fix a bug that allowed spammers to harvest users' names and photos off the site.

Facebook also has been criticized for its move to share user information with third-party Web sites, and for having privacy controls that are hard to follow.

With this kind of history, Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said it's no surprise that some people will be hesitant to entrust Facebook with the bulk of their electronic messages. He added that he's not so surprised that Facebook didn't take on privacy concerns right at the get-go at yesterday's announcement.

"[Facebook] makes their money from advertising and selling information on their users, so full privacy is contrary to their business model," Enderle said. "If they promise something they can't deliver, they just burn trust, so they may think it best to just leave the subject alone. They shouldn't overpromise and never provide the contents of the e-mail to anyone, including unauthorized internal employees. That last will be very difficult to pull off, as Google discovered."

Hadley Reynolds, an analyst for IDC, noted that Facebook needs to take great care with all the messages that the system will hold -- e-mail, IM, SMS -- or risk its own business.

"If Facebook gets this wrong and winds up propagating e-mail security leaks or excessive malware or spam through people's friends networks," Reynolds said, "this new service introduction could backfire."

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