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Facebook defends Graph Search's privacy controls for teens

The site explains how search results for minors are displayed with its new search tool

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Facebook is working hard to assure users that Graph Search, its new search engine designed to uncover all sorts of information buried within the site, does not compromise the privacy rights of minors.

"As with all of our products, we designed Graph Search to take into account the unique needs of teens on Facebook," the site said last week in a blog post aiming to clarify how Graph Search displays search results of people between the age of 13-17.

To start, most of the things minors already do on Facebook, such as adding information to their timelines or sharing status updates, can at most only be shared with friends of friends, Facebook said. But with Graph Search, any information that could identify a young person by age or by location will only be shared with that person's friends of friends if the search is done by someone between the age of 13-17, the company said.

Direct friends of minors can still see age or location information regardless of the searcher's age.

But, "as always, when sharing anything on Facebook, remember to use good judgment and share responsibly," the company said.

How users can manage their activity log and "About" pages to control which types of information are shared with certain people is also explained in the blog post, which refers to Graph Search as a "privacy aware" enhancement to Facebook's existing search tool.

Graph Search is designed to give users more options in sorting through topics and interests based on their friends. It is currently rolling out to a limited number of users as the social network works to refine it.

The feature lets people search using phrases linked to specific interests and the likes of their friends. For example, users can type in, "Italian restaurants in Portland my friends like," or "Friends who went to Stanford who live in New York."

Even on the day of the product's announcement in January, engineers stressed that its privacy controls only let users search for content that has already been shared with them by people in their existing network.

Still, Thursday's blog post "simply underscores that there are real privacy concerns about this new tool," said John Simpson, a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog, in an email interview.

Moreover, "I don't find the post particularly useful," he said. "The bottom line seems to be the advice, 'Be careful about what you share.'"

And the fact that certain search results will only be shared with teenagers' friends of friends who are also teenagers "underscores how intrusive this new product is and offers no protection to people over 17," Simpson added.

Others say Graph Searchs privacy implications are not as concerning as a lack of understanding of how Facebooks various privacy controls work.

Because the site has rolled out a series of updates over the years for managing and sharing content, all the iterations could make it hard for people to stay on track of what they really share, said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

People might be asking themselves, what am I controlling here? he said.

Graph Search, which aims to index Facebook's 1 trillion connections, is still years away from being complete, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during a Jan. 15 press conference.



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