A while ago Facebook surprised its users by automatically displaying in the ‘Contact information’ section of their profiles the newly introduced ‘Facebook email’ based on the user’s public username, e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org. Email addresses that users chose to display previously have been hidden.
The transition appears to reflect the wish of Facebook developers to make the use of email addresses ‘consistent across the site’. It further integrates messaging and email services, allowing users to have a more effective control of how they communicate. Indeed, as emails sent to the facebook.com account will be displayed under regular Facebook messages, for those who prefer having their online correspondence in one spot the change would be positive. A no less important point, however, is that the default display of Facebook email has been done without user consent, and, should one choose to display their regular email account, they would need to opt-out from showing the Facebook one under ‘Contact information’.
The option of having an easier and more centralized access to email and Facebook messages is attractive, and some users may choose to actively use their Facebook email. This may provide an option for those who want to be contacted via email by their Facebook connections, yet are unwilling to display their primary email account due to privacy concerns. Yet more integrated communications, aside from considerable user benefits, may also provide possibilities for an easier information sharing and use. Let us see below if, and how, the introduction of the Facebook email affects the use of information for targeted advertisements and the access by law enforcement to account records.
One of Facebook user concerns is how their personal information is utilized for the so-called targeted advertisements, based on user characteristics or action. If the basis for such advertisements was, among other factors, the information shared via Facebook email and messages, this would pose a significant privacy concern. However, nothing in the 2012 Facebook ‘Guide to creating ads’ or information on the action-specific targeting suggests that information in a private message or email could be used as the basis for a more enhanced targeted advertisement. On the contrary, such advertisements are based on the user activity outside the ‘private message/email zone’, such as the stories shared in news feed, the pages ‘liked’, or action (say, listening to music) performed via a specific application.
While the introduction of the Facebook email does not appear to affect the production of targeted advertisements, if the new email is actively used, it may increase the amount of information available for law enforcement authorities, requesting access to account records. Indeed, with Facebook messages, chat and now email pulled together it becomes easier for law enforcement to get a full picture of one’s communications. It needs to be kept in mind, however, that, in accordance with the Stored Communications Act, a search warrant and the establishment of a probable cause are required to access the email or message content, which should provide sufficient safeguards for individuals’ privacy.
To conclude, it does not seem that the introduction of the Facebook email per se would have a significant adverse effect on user privacy. The information sent via Facebook email does not affect the production of targeted advertisements, and the requirements for law enforcement access to email content are no less stringent than for the content of ‘regular’ Facebook messages. Further, users may opt out of the Facebook email altogether. Yet when further changes are administered by Facebook - and we can probably expect quite a few! - a welcome development would be a greater emphasis on user awareness and consent.