Private or Public? It is all the same with Facebook.

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I am not a big Facebook user but, like almost everyone under the age of 30, I have an account. I am not exactly sure why I keep my account. I guess it is a social convention of sorts. My account now consists of only my basic information and my profile pictures; however, this was not always the case, as I once had many tagged pictures, videos and albums attached to my profile. As my interest in Facebook began to dwindle, I became increasingly concerned with the issue of privacy on the site. Each time a new update of the site came out, privacy settings became more and more difficult to adjust. Public became the default setting and the privacy center became increasingly complex to navigate. Just recently, I finally made the decision to restrict my information.

Was this enough?

No. Not at all. I am far less protected that Facebook would like me to believe I am.  All the information that was once associated with my Facebook account is still owned by Facebook. Even if I were to delete or deactivate my account completely, all the information that was once connected to my account is still out there.  Facebook states in small print at the bottom of its privacy policy that information remains after you delete your account. It is not surprising that Facebook chooses to keep this little fact quiet.

Image“Do you share your personal info with everyone on Facebook? If so, there’s a decent chance that data is now part of a file — containing information for around 100 million users of the social networking site — that’s now making its way around the Web” This frightening statement was published in The consumerist, by Chris Morran, in 2009 when Facebook reversed a change to its terms of service that could potentially reveal users information. Facebook refuted this claim saying, “People who use Facebook own their information and have the right to share only what they want, with whom they want, and when they want.”

The statement Facebook makes is true, to some extent. Information on the file is public. The problem is that users are not aware of how to control privacy settings and exactly what information is private.  Despite what some might say, this is not the users fault! Maybe I am a bit paranoid but it really seems like Facebook is on a mission to deprive us of our privacy!

Danah Boyd and Eszter Hargittai explain in their article, Facebook Privacy Settings: Who cares, that each time Facebook puts out an update or introduces new user options, user settings are automatically reset to public. For example, when the option became available to share user information with Google, the automatic setting was set to yes, share my information. The site does not inform users of the changes, leaving accounts public and vulnerable.  With a policy like this, it is not surprising that millions of users are completely unaware of how much information they are sharing and what exactly is being done with this information. I have always been concerned over privacy, yet, Facebook fooled me into leaving my settings public after one of their many updates. When I did take another look into my privacy settings, I was shocked and appalled to discover that everything had reset everything to public! How can Facebook be allowed to do this? It is a violation on my privacy rights!

In 2009, Facebook urged users to reconsider their privacy settings. To do so, the site placed mandatory prompts every time users logged in asking them to review their settings. The default setting that the prompts brought users to was, of course, public. If a user exited the screen, all information was automatically set to public. As a result, many more accounts became publically available than ever before. This data can be seen in the graph below. So, no, technically Facebook is not lying by selling or sharing private information but they are making it pretty dam hard to keep information private.

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A study by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, found that users think that the benefits of using Facebook outweighs the associated privacy risks. The problem is that users are not aware of all the risks. “Most users do not seem to realize that restricting access to their data does not sufficiently address the risks”. Take a look at the diagram below. Restricting your profile to friends only, only restricts the visible portion the iceberg. Users feed the invisible portion of the iceberg by uploading personal data on a continual basis to third party applications. This is all quite scary, especially since all this research is being done by credible scientific journals. How do users not know of all these problems and how is Facebook so good at hiding all this information?

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How to Protect Yourself: A Few Quick Tips

  • The default setting is public. If you don’t want to share your information you will have to change this.
  • The privacy center does not allow you to restrict all your information. You will have to make many changes manually. This is a time consuming process but your privacy is well worth the effort.
  • Utilize the list tool. This is one of the few functions that Facebook makes it easy to control.
  • Review your third-party applications. This is one of the main way information is spread and Facebook is increasing their support for theses applications.

I strongly urge you to reconsider your privacy settings for social networking sites. Facebook may not be sharing your private information but keeping information private is becoming quite a challenge and Facebook certainly is not helping.

Watch this great little video on Facebook privacy and what exactly data is used for.

“Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”    – Benjamin Franklin


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