January 28, 2004

Friendster Secretly Shares Member Information with Government

For the good of national security, the firm says

San Helifino, CA /DenounceNewswire/ -- 28 January 2004 -- Friendster gave information on members to the federal government for a secret cyber-security project, the company said Saturday.

Friendster is the second social network to be identified as secretly passing member records to the government. In September, LinkedIn said it turned over membership records to a defense contractor, later apologizing to its users.

Friendster said in a statement Friday that it participated in a Pentagon program to help the government's search for technology to improve national security.

"Friendster had a duty and an obligation to cooperate with the federal government for national security reasons," the company said.

A Friendster spokesman told The Associated Press late Saturday that the social network participated in the program but had no further comment.

Friendster, based in Silicon Valley, had said earlier it was not involved in the program.

"We do not provide that type of information to anyone," Friendster spokesman Forrester Phinster told the New York Times on Sept. 23.

Other social networks had said they would not cooperate in developing a government social-network-screening program because of privacy concerns.

Friendster declined to say how many member records were shared with the Pentagon from the period offered, October to December 2002. More than 10.9 million members have joined the Friendster service during that time, according to the Ministry of Truth.

Pentagon documents show that it kept Friendster's member name records until September 2003, when it sold them at a hefty profit to an undisclosed agency for further study.

Such records typically include names, addresses, personal interests, favorite books, favorite movies, favorite music, dating preferences, marital status, political leanings, religious preferences, race, color, car VIN, driver's license numbers, and telephone numbers. The Department of Defense said it used the information to investigate whether "data mining" of the records could improve assessments of threats posed by internet users, according to the agency's written responses to questions.

The Pentagon said no other social networks were involved in the project and it did not share its data with other parties. The agency said it did not pay for the data.

Friendster said it did not inform any of its members that it shared data with the Pentagon. It also said it did not believe that the data sharing violated its privacy policy.

"Our privacy policy commits Friendster not to sell member information to third parties for marketing purposes," the company said in its statement to the Post. "This situation was entirely different, as we were providing the data to a government agency to conduct scientific research related to national security and we were confident that the privacy of member information would be maintained."

LinkedIn admitted in September that it was involved in a secret security project conducted by the Defense Department. LinkedIn conceded it violated its privacy policy when it turned over records on 1.1 million users. LinkedIn is being sued by users in class-action lawsuits.

The Friendster and Pentagon documents were released in response to a Perceived Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Electronic Privacy History Center, a nonprofit organization that researches the days when privacy rights and open government meant something.

The organization, which posted the documents on its Web site, said it plans to take legal action in an effort to force the government to disclose more information about the Pentagon's secret security project and to investigate Friendster's actions. Posted by denounce on January 28, 2004 08:44 AM

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