Get yer 170 million Facebook profiles right here

Security researcher Ron Bowes scraped more than 100 million Facebook profiles into a database and posted it online. How are you feeling about your Facebook privacy now?

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Well, that certainly got everyone's attention.

Yesterday, a security consultant named Ron Bowes published a database containing the names and public information of well over 100 million Facebook users and put it up on Bit Torrent for all the world to download.

The official figure is 171 million profiles, though it's unclear if that represents 171 million individual Facebook users. Still... it's a friggin' lot, between a fifth and a third of all Facebook members.

So far I've been completely unable to access Bowes' Skull Security site -- no doubt overwhelmed with traffic after all the attention this story has gotten. And I've not yet downloaded that 2.5 gig Torrent file. So it's hard to gauge exactly what information Bowes managed to scrape.

[ See also: Should Facebook charge for privacy? ]

It's important to note Bowes only accessed information that is publicly available. He didn't hack anyone's accounts. He probably violated Facebook's policies about automated information retrieval, but otherwise did nothing illegal.

Facebook's response: Feh. All of the information Bowes scraped off the site was public anyway. Much of it could be accessed via Google or Bing. Or, for that matter, Facebook's own directory of public profiles. Nothing to see here, please move along.

But deliberately or otherwise, Facebook is missing the point. There are billions of bits of information accessible via Google. They're all marginally useful -- until someone collects them all in one spot and organizes them. Then, suddenly, they can be extremely useful.

Think about it. You're searching for a new place to live. Do you use Google? No, you use a site like RealEstate.com or Apartments.com, which gather all the data you need into one spot, and sort it based on the information you're most likely to need.

Think about the phone book. Tons of information in there, but not terribly useful for looking up more than one name at once -- until you put it online. Suddenly it's a lot more useful. Now you can locate numbers for everyone in a particular area or ZIP code, plug them into a piece of software, and start robo-dialing.

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