Beware of Facebook “Privacy” Settings

I have more than a passing interest in on-line privacy and on-line ID protection.  Sure, I have lots of different accounts on the Internet and a few Blogs.  It is not that I am terribly private or keeping to myself.  I am a member of several social networks, including Facebook and Twitter.  But I am also a participant at ClaimId.org (see my earlier posting on “Claim your on-line identity“).  I am also a volunteer with organizations that promote electronic encryption and authentication.  The point is, I care about these topics.  And I have read Facebook’s Privacy Policy.

I am one of those people who reads those privacy agreements. It is not because I enjoy legalize or boring documents.  It is because these documents tell one more about what privacy you give up when you agree with them, than they tell about how your privacy is protected.  I am particularly troubled by the changes at Facebook this week.  This morning, they initiated new changes to their privacy settings. They warned us this was coming.  But what I have seen so far has not been very clear about how these changes affect your privacy.  And I believe we all need to look carefully at this.  To be fair, they did put up a decent page to explain the new choices, but it is only a good start.

Hopefully you have visited the Facebook privacy settings area, where you can adjust how much of your information is visible and who can see it.  If you have never changed those settings from their defaults, you were probably sharing more information that you thought you were.  And if you have agreed to allow various applications to have access to your information, then your information is almost certainly more public than you thought.

What data are we talking about sharing

I expect most of us have a profile picture up and maybe your birthday, the name of your significant other, your home town and/or one or more phone numbers. That’s not a bad thing as long as it is only shared with those you choose to share then with.  I have all that information and more, but I am careful to make sure that only my acknowledged Facebook friends see this.  I had to adjust the default settings for this limited privacy.  Now even if I go in today and select “old settings” for my new Facebook privacy policy, there are things shared now that were not shared before.

Facebook’s new “privacy policy” now defines the set of publicly available information to include: Name, Profile Picture, Gender, Current City, Networks, Friend List, and Pages.  These are bits of information that you can not restrict access to by any means short of not sharing it with Facebook.

There are other things which you do get to decide who does and does not get to see it.  These include your birthdate, your family and relationships,  your education and work information and any phone numbers you have listed.  And from my perspective, the biggy is that Facebook wants to make all your status updates public. I don’t mind my friends seeing all this, but I don’t want it all publicly searchable.

I know that all my postings on twitter are public and searchable.  But since I know that, I am careful what I post there.  Up until today, I was fairly certain which things I post on Facebook are public and searchable and which are not.

The most important thing to consider is that under the new default basically everything that Facebook knows about you will be publicly available and searchable by places like Google and Yahoo.  The old policy let you choose which information was available only to your friends, or even friends of friends or to friends and a network you may belong to.  If you have set these privacy settings so that your information is only shared with your friends, that will still be true, if you select “Old Settings” when prompted about today’s privacy policy changes.  With some noteworthy exceptions, please read on.

Applications and Websites

I have adjusted privacy settings so that most of my information on Facebook is only shared with those I approve as friends.  The Applications and Websites area (let’s just call this Apps, to keep things readable) allows a Facebook friend to share information through Apps that they have joined. I am unhappy that even though I have said the info should only be shared with my friends, Facebook will by default allow those friends to share the information via Apps that I have not joined myself.  That’s right, by default my friends can share information that I want restricted.  I had to go into the Apps area under privacy settings to change this and restrict that data, that I already thought was restricted.

Consider carefully when you do join applications on Facebook.  Most of them ask if they can access your information so “they can better serve you” or to improve your experience.  I understand that having my information makes them better able to customize my experience.  But when I choose to play chess with a Facebook, friend, I do not think they need access to my birthday or my e-mail address.  Most applications do not let me control or restrict what information I share with them.

Know what you are sharing

So why this big long article?  I want to make you aware of the importance of knowing who has access to what information.  I’m sure most people don’t read those privacy statements.  I think it is important that you make an effort to review your privacy settings.  And as Facebook makes broad changes in their privacy settings, I want to strongly urge everyone to take the time to go through the Privacy Settings section of your Facebook account.  I think you will be surprised at what you find.

If you have questions about what you find, please feel free to post comments here.  If you find something that is now made more widely visible than you expected, please post that in a comment as well.  Perhaps you will find something that I missed.  Or maybe someone else will read this and find something they had not thought to look at.

Thanks for taking the time to read this far.  I try to keep my Blog posts shorter than this.  But our privacy (mine and yours) is worth a little extra effort.

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