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New Facebook Tool, Te'o Scandal Fan Flames of Privacy Debate

Manti T'eo #5 of Notre Dame moves against Wake Forest on November 17, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana.
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Manti T'eo #5 of Notre Dame moves against Wake Forest on November 17, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana.

Social networking platforms are becoming increasingly sophisticated in culling information from users, inadvertently fanning the flames of new privacy debates.

Earlier this week, Facebook rolled out a new social search tool that lets users gather content that other users have already shared on their Facebook profiles, such as relationship statuses, news, music and eating habits. Graph Search is being billed as a powerful tool to help people refine searches for public information, or locate others who share their interests.

(Read More: Facebook Rolls Out Social Search Feature.)

Yet analysts note that Graph's evolution could eventually allow Facebook to challenge dating websites and other search engines. Some experts say those moves raise more thorny questions over user data, in a sector beset by widespread privacy and fraud jitters.

"It's fair to question the common narrative that because [Graph] Search respects privacy settings, then there aren't privacy issues,"said Woodrow Hartzog, a law professor and affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society.

Hence why Facebook's new search tool comes with both risks and rewards. The more refined search capabilities of Graph could "substantially increases the probability that some [users] will actually see aw hole trail of information that you thought was tucked away in some dark corner of Facebook," according to Hartzog.

"Certainly that is a great feature, but we've seen some really harmful things happen when privacy settings are not respected," he added.

As debates erupt over how social networks can repurpose user information for profit, it also raises the specter of ordinary users using the same tools for nefarious purposes — which run the gamut from bothersome fundraising appeals from Nigeria, and dating hoaxes.

Facebook's Social Graph's arrival coincides with a scandal involving an NFL-bound college football star and an online romance gone wrong.

Tongues wagged this week after star University of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o became ensnared in a scandal, in which he alleges he was victimized by an Internet girlfriend who turned out to be fictitious. The headlines were reminiscent of the 2010 sleeper hit "Catfish," in which a man discovers his online paramour was not who she appeared to be on Facebook.

Some experts point out that social networks are becoming more hip to preventing online fraud from taking place.

Facebook enforces a rigid naming convention policy, while Twitter assiduously verifies user accounts. In a recent episode of the "Catfish" television show on MTV, one of the stars used Google Images to do some web-based sleuthing on a Facebookprofile picture.

"Powerful search actually make it harder to have a phony identity," said Jules Polonetsky, director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "These tools make it far harder to present different faces to different people."

The threats, analysts say, should make users more aware of how information they post on social networks is likely to be used. In addition,they should be more vigilant about accepting requests from people they don't know.

Alas, that advice may arrive too little, too late for a certain college athlete.

By CNBC's Javier E. David

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