12 June 2009

How Facebook Uses Your "Skipped" Webmail Contacts

Yesterday, Facebook suggested two people to me through its “Suggestions” feature which usually includes friends of friends, co-workers and people I used to go to school with. The odd thing about these two suggestions was that although I knew both of them – I had made contact with them years ago because they are my third or fourth cousins – we had no friends in common, we had never worked at the same place, we even lived in different parts of the world. So how did Facebook know that we knew each other?

I’m sure all you Facebook users are already aware that you can enter your Gmail (or other webmail) username and password to import a list of your contacts into Facebook to see if any of them are already registered based on their email address. This is something I have never done as I don’t like to enter my Google Account password on third-party websites. Even if I had done this, I knew for a fact that I had never used my Gmail account to email these two people.

But what if Facebook had used my friends’ imported contact lists to suggest their profile to me even though they didn’t add me as a friend? I am now pretty sure that’s what happened here. Here’s how I proved it:

My friend added my email address to his Contacts in Gmail.

My friend signed in to his Facebook account and imported his Contacts from his Gmail account using the “Find People You Email” feature.

My friend chose to skip the friend suggestion it was making based on my Gmail address.

I signed in to my Facebook account and saw that my friend’s Facebook account was being suggested to me.

In summary, it seems that even if you choose to skip the contacts you have imported, Facebook will still store your relationship with those contacts. Not only will it continue to include them in your suggestions, but it will also alert them to the fact that you previously imported their email address and that you are registered on Facebook. Facebook clearly states that it will not store your password, but it doesn’t tell you that it will store all your contacts even if you chose to skip them.

Admittedly, your account will only be suggested to others if your privacy settings allow your profile to be returned in search results, so anyone could search for your profile themselves, but is it right for Facebook to suggest you to the people that you have chosen to skip? Also, does this mean it’s possible to force yourself into someone else’s suggestions list by simply adding their email address to your contacts?

Update: Canna points out in the forum that you can now remove this information from Facebook using the Remove Contacts Imported using the Friend Finder page, usually accessible via: Friends > Find Friends > Learn More. (Perhaps this is a new page as I don’t remember seeing that link before...) [Thanks Canna!]

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