Flickr launched a new feature - the ability to search your Gmail, Yahoo! Mail or Hotmail contacts list for people on Flickr so you can add them as contacts. Many services let you do that, but almost all of them require you to give up the user name and password for your email. Flickr did it right and it was exciting, for us at least. GMail users are taken to a GMail page, where GMail asks for their usernames and passwords - then asked if Flickr should be given one time access or ongoing access. That's great. We've been calling on applications to use best practices and emerging protocols to access user data without asking for passwords for some time. The risks are too great, otherwise.Late last night Yahoo! owned photo sharing site
Some Flickr users, though, are really upset. They don't want anyone who has sent them an email to be able to easily find their photos on Flickr. What some people call Data Portability, others call a privacy violation.
The Down Side
Flickr users have been able to find each other by searching for individual emails for some time, but that "security by obscurity" has been changed dramatically by a bulk comparison of all your email contacts to the Flickr user database. There's not consensus whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
I liked it when I tried it, I connected with some interesting people on Flickr that I wouldn't have otherwise. I wouldn't appreciate it, though, if certain people from my past who have otherwise forgotten about me were now prompted to check out my photos on Flickr. If blog comment spammers I've had nasty email exchanges with were suddenly prompted to friend me on Flickr, I wouldn't like that very much either.
Just like many people objected to Robert Scoble's scraping emails out of Facebook in the name of Data Portability because they felt they had given him contact info in the limited setting of Facebook - these kinds of issues are going to come up a lot. The sticky privacy questions are the ones that Mark Zuckerberg told us are key to Facebook's own engagement with Data Portability. We've asked similar questions here about the new Google Social Graph API. The Data Portability Working Group has lively discussions on privacy (subscribe to a filtered feed for the topic here) but mainstream users clearly have serious concerns.
The situation at Flickr wasn't helped by the fact that the option to opt-out of exposing your email address to this new feature was broken for the first 12 hours after launch, as was the ability to search Yahoo! Mail contacts. In the big picture view of these issues, though - Yahoo! in general is generally remarkably good about identity issues for all but the occasional Chinese journalist. (Flickr is better known for innovation than for its crimes against justice and democracy, of which there haven't been any that we know of.)
Some users have stated that they would prefer email exposure in the new feature to be opt-in, instead of opt-out. Though it will drastically slow down user connections - opt-in for this kind of feature may ultimately be required in order for data portability to be accepted. On the other hand, the Facebook Newsfeed faced a wholescale revolt when user activity was by default exposed to friends there and now it's the site's defining feature.
Even what's thought of as the best practices in webmail APIs have a lot of unanswered questions remaining, as we discussed yesterday in a post about Xoopit. Australian tech consultant Lachlan Hardy argues that standards based authentication steps could still soften users' resistance to phishing and reminds us to look at the URL of the authentication page.
What do you think? How should checking your email contacts for friends on a new network be done? What other best practices would you like to see emerge in order to make portability of data useful, safe and desirable?