Dear farhad

Is Facebook Spying on My E-Mail?

Slate’s tech advice column explains how Facebook makes friend suggestions and other vagaries of social networking.

Facebook had a watershed year as both the young and old flocked to the site. Many users, however—even veteran early adopters—have found themselves puzzled over the site’s rapidly growing complexity. In a column that debuted in October, Slate’s tech columnist, Farhad Manjoo, recently fielded some of the most common reader questions about social networking and other staples of online life. Selected questions and answers from his first two columns are reprinted below. New questions can be submitted to with “I’ve got a tech question!” as the subject line. (Your question may be edited.)

Dear Farhad,
Lately Facebook’s friend suggestions have been creeping me out. I help coach a girl’s basketball team, and Facebook has twice recommended that I friend parents of players. But how did Facebook know that I knew them? Their names could only have come from our team mailing list. I’ve previously used Facebook’s friend-finder service—which accesses your e-mail to look for possible social-networking connections—but that was long before my association with the basketball team. Facebook promised it wouldn’t store my e-mail password. Was it lying? Did Facebook access my Yahoo account to learn about the team?

—Can’t Stand Facebook Spying

Dear Can’t Stand,
I get this question quite frequently, and I’ve wondered about it myself, too. Facebook’s friend suggestions often make sense—many of the site’s recommendations depend on obvious social connections. If Tom is friends with Harry and Louise, and Dick is friends with Harry and Louise as well, then Facebook assumes that Tom and Dick probably know each other, too. Every so often, though, Facebook will recommend someone who isn’t a friend of a friend: your plumber, your pool boy, your travel agent. And because people often give Facebook access to their e-mail contacts when they first join the site, these suggestions raise a lot of hackles: Facebook must be peeking in my e-mail!

Barry Schnitt, a Facebook spokesman, says that’s not the case. Facebook doesn’t store your password; it has no way of going into your e-mail to check for new relationships. So how does the site learn about the connection between you and your plumber? Because your plumber let Facebook look in his e-mail, and Facebook found your name there. “If someone imports their contacts and your name is found, you might get a recommendation to be their friend,” Schnitt says. In your case, Can’t Stand, the basketball parents likely allowed Facebook to look at their contacts; Facebook found your name there and made a recommendation.

Schnitt also points out that Facebook’s friend suggestions are secret—if you choose to ignore the recommendation that you friend your plumber, your plumber will never find out.


Dear Farhad,
Facebook recently blocked me from adding friends—it said I’d been adding too many friends too quickly. After I was blocked, Facebook’s message didn’t tell me how long I have to wait before I can start adding friends again. It’s been four days. All this seems draconian.

—Just Too Friendly

Dear Too Friendly,
I ran your problem by Facebook’s Schnitt, and he says that you likely tripped up Facebook’s anti-spam systems. The social network keeps on the lookout for botlike behavior—friending too promiscuously, sending out lots of messages too quickly, updating your status like crazy. It’s possible for Facebook’s security algorithms to mistakenly finger real people for bots, but you’d have to be doing something very unusual—and, therefore, pretty annoying—for that to happen. Schnitt says that in many cases, full access is restored after a few days. And remember—after you’re back up and running, slow down.


Dear Farhad,
How does Facebook pick which ads to display? I’m gay, out, and proud, but my sexual orientation isn’t listed on my Facebook page. However, Atlantis’ gay-cruise ads still appear when I’m browsing. Has the site somehow figured out that I’m gay?

—Not Happy With Facebook Ads

Dear Not Happy,
According to a Facebook spokesman, you’ve most probably been swept up in an ad targeted to a very broad group. When companies advertise on Facebook, they’re allowed to choose a range of demographic characteristics that determine which people see their ads. It’s possible that Atlantis didn’t choose to limit its ads just to gay people but, say, to all single men under 40 who live near San Francisco. This way the company gets to people like you—folks who aren’t out on Facebook but who might still be in the gay-cruise demographic.

The Facebook rep added a couple other points: Ads aren’t selected based on groups you’ve joined or based on your friends. You weren’t shown the gay-cruise ad because your friends are gay or because you became a fan of the group “No on Prop 8,” for instance.

But there is one caveat: If a friend of yours presses “Like” on an ad, Facebook will show you the ad, too, plus a note saying which of your friends liked it. The company also uses the “Like” feature to determine which ads to show you in the future.


Dear Farhad,
Could you please find out why Gmail’s search function sucks so hard? It doesn’t do wild cards. It can’t handle misspellings. It can’t even present me both hyphenated and unhyphenated versions of the same word. The beauty of Google search is that, many times, it seems magically to know what I mean. With Gmail search I have to fight it like an old-school text-based adventure game. Why?

—Gmail Can’t Find What I’m Looking For

Dear Gmail Can’t Find,
Huh, is Gmail search really that bad? I have to confess I’ve never had that problem. All of the shortcomings you mention are true—it doesn’t do wild cards and can’t handle misspellings—but I don’t recall these limits ever keeping me from finding the e-mail I was after. What’s more, Gmail’s search is much faster than search on many desktop e-mail clients, especially when you overload those systems with tens of thousands of messages.

I think Google’s Web search engine has raised your expectations for all search boxes. As a Google spokeswoman pointed out when I called to ask about your problems, Gmail search will never be as magical as Google search. That’s because they’re two very different systems. Google search gets its intelligence from collective action; it knows what link to show you even when you’ve misspelled your query because lots of other people have done the same thing. Gmail search, on the other hand, is a silo. It can’t study collective intelligence and therefore can’t know that if you typed in “pubic school teacher,” you meant “public.” Here’s one tip, though: In April, Gmail unveiled Search Autocomplete, a feature that you can turn on in Gmail Labs. This will cut down on your misspellings—type in F-A-R-H and voila, you’ll see my e-mail come up in a drop-down list.


Dear Farhad,
Why don’t pop-up blockers work anymore? I’m a faithful Firefox user and pop-ups get through on nearly every site I visit. When I turn off Firefox’s pop-up blocker even more get through. I hate browser toolbars so what is the best solution for annoying pop-ups and Flash ads for Firefox?

—Annoyed By Pop-Ups

Dear Annoyed,
Web browsers’ built-in pop-up blockers work on a certain class of pop-ups. Advertisers are wise to this, and they’re always trying new ways to break through. One common method is to use pop-ups that rely on Adobe Flash, which browsers can’t easily block. If you’re using Firefox, the easy way to block these ads—as well as a whole range of others—is to use an add-on like Adblock Plus or Flashblock.

But if you’re seeing pop-ups on nearly every site you visit, it’s possible that these are coming from someplace else—spyware on your computer. I’d suggest running a spyware checker like Spybot Search & Destroy to look for malware on your machine.


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