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Is Facebook smartphone just a new way to collect data about you? (+video)

Facebook's smartphone launch raises alarms with consumer advocates who worry that more ease for consumers also means less privacy, as Facebook extends its capacity to mine personal data.

By Staff writer / April 4, 2013

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., in this March 20 photo. Facebook's move to launch a branded smartphone is raising concerns for privacy advocates.

Jeff Chiu/AP/File

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Using Facebook on your phone? Soon, the company will make it much easier, but, some say, at a steep cost to your privacy.

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That's the tradeoff as the social media giant announces on Thursday that it is launching a branded smartphone that will reportedly operate on software called Facebook Home. Unlike the current Facebook app that allows users to access the site, the new Facebook phone will further integrate the software into features such as text messaging, photo uploading, and more.

As more consumers transition their online habits from desktop computers to smartphones and tablets, advertisers are following. The phone allows  Facebook to tap into the lucrative US mobile advertising market that is expected to be worth $7.29 billion by the end of 2013, according to eMarketer.

However, consumers and privacy advocates are concerned.

The phone is the latest development to highlight the many privacy concerns activists and consumers have raised about Facebook, today the leading social network in the world with more than 1 billion users. Critics warn about the covert ways they say the company solicits personal information – ranging from mobile phone numbers and addresses to personal tastes based on what activities users have chosen to “like” – and then makes it available to advertisers.

With consumers using Facebook to shape their online identity – expressing their preference for a neighborhood restaurant, a certain type of music, their favorite clothing retailer, or how often they read books or see movies – the social media platform becomes a greater resource for advertisers that seek to finely hone their messages.

Despite a recent class action settlement and warnings from the Federal Trade Commission, the company remains committed to exploiting its massive user databank, they say, and the new phone and other emerging tech gadgets will significantly enhance their capacity to do so. For example, with Google Glass, a headset that allows users to walk around interacting online via voice command, companies will be able to mine location data more deeply than they had in the past.

“The more you integrate with a mobile phone, the more data you can collect,” says Parker Higgins, a spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyber-rights advocacy group in San Francisco. “In the case of Facebook, there’s more concern because Facebook doesn’t have a great track record with respecting people’s sense of privacy.”

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, told the Los Angeles Times this week that “consumers using the Facebook phone will be further ‘in the pocket’ of [Facebook founder and CEO] Mark Zuckerberg,” and that the company “has dramatically expanded how it collects and analyzes its users’ mobile data, giving it a detailed map of what we do, where we are, and what we buy.”

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