Facebook Privacy


By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor

Facebook has gone through another round of appearance changes – call them “facelifts” if you want – bringing with them the now-traditional flurry of complaints about the changes. While many have complained about usability issues, most of the gripes seem focused on privacy concerns.

In fact, it’s become an almost-Pavlovian response. Facebook makes a change, users complain about privacy. But are they warranted this time? I’ve spent the past two weeks fielding questions from my Facebook friends and debunking myths about the new setup, and naturally I have a few observations and recommendations.

Before I begin, though, it’s interesting to note that most of the complaints came from people of my generation. My younger friends seem to have accepted the recent changes in stride. Does this mean they’re more accepting of change, or less concerned about privacy? I hope it’s the former.

But that’s beside the point. You should be concerned about protecting your privacy, especially on social networking sites. The most important thing to remember about Facebook is that it is a free service, yet the company rakes in millions of dollars every year. How do you think it does that?

There are several ways – first, by selling ad space to marketers. Clickthroughs generate a small but steady source of income for the site that hosts them. Another way is by allowing game makers – Zynga, for example – to sell game tokens through the site. Gamers like to spend money on games, and this also generates revenue for both companies. A third method is by selling consumer information to marketing companies.

That’s right, Facebook is compiling information about us and selling it to third parties.

You are not their customer – you are their product. Remember the comment about it being a free service? If you click through an ad, or buy game tokens, or if you have an account, you are giving away personal information.

It needs to be said here that Facebook is not unique in this – all social networking sites do it, so if you’re thinking of switching to Google+, realize that their attitude toward privacy is even worse.

Fortunately, Facebook provides some pretty effective tools you can use to protect yourself while maintaining contact with college buddies and professional colleagues.

First, and most important, you need to use your account settings properly. This is your first line of defense in social networking privacy. In your Account Settings there is a tab called “Privacy,” which can be set to either Public, Friends Only or Friends of Friends.

If you want the world to see what you post on your wall, by all means set it to Public. There are legitimate reasons to do this – if you’re running a business, for example, or if you’re managing a public advocacy page. But generally speaking I don’t recommend it. If your wall is public, that means its contents can be accessed by search engines. Like Google, for example. If this doesn’t bother you, go ahead and be Public. I don’t like it, so I set mine to Friends Only.

There’s another control you can use to make your account even more private; it’s found in Privacy Settings under the heading “How You Connect” and with it you can decide who can find you in a Facebook search. If you want to be really private, set it to Friends Only and no one will be able to find you unless you look for them.

One new item that’s caused consternation recently is something called the “ticker.” This is a scrolling sidebar on the right side of the page that shows recent updates, posts and comments from all your friends. When Facebook rolled it out last week, I saw a flurry of activity from my co-generational friends, mostly asking how they can turn it off and complaining about the “invasion of privacy.”

If you’re bothered by the ticker and its privacy issues, have no fear – nothing’s really changed. The ticker is nothing more than a scrolling display of everything you saw in your “world” menu already, in a more readable form. It also lets you peruse posts and comments and post replies without having to scroll through your entire wall to find them.

But what about privacy? Doesn’t the ticker show you everything that happens? Not really. Yes, you can see if someone you’ve never heard of replied to a friend’s post. But if you aren’t that person’s friend, and their wall isn’t public, you won’t be able to see their information anyway. So nothing’s really changed.

And while we’re on the subject, an important item to remember is that your posts assume the privacy levels of whatever page you’re posting on. That means if you post something to a public wall, your post is public and anyone can read it. Conversely, if you post something to a friend’s wall and he has his locked down to Friends Only (like me), no one but your friends can read it.

Another widget that I find useful is “subscriptions.” This tool lets you filter the input you receive from individual friends and pages. So if you have a friend who plays a lot of games and posts game updates all the time, of which you aren’t interested, you can turn off their “Games” posts and hardly ever hear from them again. You can also turn off likes and comments, or set it to important items only. It’s really pretty nifty.

Lists are also a powerful tool. They’ve always been there, to some extent; the latest upgrade just made them easier to use. For some, the idea of compartmentalizing our friends seems counterintuitive. But we all do it, even offline. How many of us have friends or groups with whom we share inside jokes, or discussions that other groups of friends would be shocked at or uninterested in? Lists lets you do just that – keep your inside jokes “inside” and control the groups you discuss things with. It’s a nice tool, and again, no different from life.

The latest and probably most significant innovation from Facebook is the “Timeline.” This feature changes the appearance of your Profile, making it look like an online digital scrapbook with all your personal history displayed for the world to see (or your friends, if you’re privacy-minded). It looks nice, and I can see why people would like it (the old profile format feels clunky), but I don’t use it. There’s such a thing as too much information sharing.

I’ve been asked on many occasions why I have my account set to “Friends Only.” Do I not understand it’s “social networking?” Don’t I want to be found? Yes, I do – but that doesn’t mean I’m going to make it easy. I like being in contact with old friends and colleagues, but I like maintaining my privacy. That’s the good thing about social networking. You can be as social or anti-social as you want, just like in real life.

Privacy and security in social networking aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Just take a few minutes to learn how your account works and apply some critical thinking. Do you really want a future employer to find that picture of you from last Friday night’s drunken revelry? If not, either don’t post it or limit who sees it. Have something to say, but don’t want to broadcast it to everyone on your list? Focus the chatter on the people who matter.

Have fun on Facebook. But do it sensibly and responsibly. You are responsible for protecting your own privacy.