Facebook May Have Your Phone Number, Even If You Didn’t Provide It

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Facebook refuted claims Thursday that it makes public the phone numbers stored on users’ cellphones, shooting down a rumor that had spread online earlier in the week.

The privacy concern stems from a feature on Facebook’s mobile application that lets users sync their smartphone contacts with their contacts on the social networking site. What many users apparently did not realize is that the site also uploads all the phone numbers from their cellphone to a special phonebook page on their Facebook accounts.

The phonebook feature itself is nothing new: When Facebook launched the page several years ago, it originally just collected all the phone numbers that your friends posted to their own profiles and listed them all in one place. More recently, the site added contacts from your cellphone to the list if you chose to sync with Facebook, effectively creating a more comprehensive digital address book.

But on Wednesday, rumors spread that the entire contact page was publicly viewable by other users, meaning that anyone might be able to check your phonebook page and find numbers to call your Facebook friends and family members, and even friends who were not on Facebook at all. Many users updated their status with the following response to Facebook:

“ALL THE PHONE NUMBERS IN YOUR PHONE are now on Facebook! No joke - 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. All phone numbers are published. Please repost this on your Status, so your friends can remove their numbers and thus prevent abuse if they do not want them published."

For many users, it probably came as a surprise to find out that all their friends’ phone numbers were stored in one place online, as this feature has not been highly publicized before. But as Facebook has since explained, each user can only see their own phonebook page. It is not made public to others on the site.

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

Users who feel uncomfortable with their phone number popping up in another user’s address book can simply remove any phone number from their Facebook profile by clicking on Edit Profile followed by Contact Information and then delete whichever number is listed. By doing this, the only way your number would show up on another person’s phonebook page is if that user had your number stored on their cellphone and then synced with Facebook.

Indeed, this points to the real privacy concern of Facebook’s phonebook feature: though the site does not make your contacts public to other users, the bigger issue is whether Facebook shares the information with advertisers. After all, the site has been accused of leaking users’ personal information to advertisers on occasion before.

If so, this could mean that third-party sites get access to your phone number whether or not you post it to your profile: Let’s say you opt not to include your phone number on your profile precisely because of these privacy concerns. That works great until one of your friends or family members decides to sync his or her phone with Facebook. Once that happens, your phone number will appear on that person’s phonebook page, which means it is in Facebook’s data system all the same.

We certainly don’t expect Facebook to use that phone number in any malicious way, but as MainStreet has reported before, a phone number is one of the most valuable pieces of information advertisers want to collect from consumers for future marketing efforts.

People who prefer not to have their cellphone contacts uploaded to Facebook can find instructions here on how to disable this feature.

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