It's easy to demonize Facebook -- or any social network, for that matter -- without first taking a closer look at how we use the service and gauging the consequences of over-sharing. But on the other hand it's also true that some sites are not always forthcoming about how they handle your data. To quickly put things into perspective, Facebook has gone from sharing some basic personal information with your network and friends in 2005, to opening your profile up to the entire Internet and automatically enrolling you in their pilot programs as they look to monetize their huge user base.
Keeping track of Facebook's ongoing updates and changes, and how they affect your privacy, can be confusing and frustrating. For those that aren't down with broadcasting their entire lives online, here are some tips you can use to reclaim your privacy without resorting to a more drastic alternative like dropping the service altogether.
1. Share with friends only. By default, most settings on Facebook are set to 'Everyone'. This means everyone using it will be able to see your profile information and activity on the site, not just the people you know. Head over to "Privacy Settings" under the Account tab on the top right of the page, and you'll see options for everything related to your profile, which you can tweak to share with Everyone, Friends of Friends, Only Friends or Specific Friends (Customize).
Be sure to make sensitive contact information private and only share what you believe is necessary. Keep in mind that Facebook Pages you connect to are public. This means that even if you hide your likes and interests to the general public, your info may still show up on these pages so it's better to just strip anything you don't want to share.
2. Use friend lists. There are some things you may want to share with close friends but not necessarily with, say, a business contact or perhaps even your relatives. Friend Lists can have specific privacy policies applied to them so you can control who is seeing what. These are also useful for organizing your friends if you have lots of them.
3. Don't share through friends. When your Facebook friends use applications that you do not use, they may be unsuspectingly sharing your information with third parties. To protect yourself against this go to Account/Privacy Settings/Applications and Websites/What your friends can share about you and uncheck all 13 boxes.
4. Disable Instant Personalization. Facebook makes the public parts of your profile available to websites like Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft Docs for "personalization." This means they can automatically configure their website to match your interests. If you are not comfortable with companies digging through your profile, go to Account/Privacy Settings/ Applications and Websites/, click Edit Setting beside Instant Personalization Pilot Program and uncheck the box.
5. De-list yourself from search engines. Being displayed in search engine results is a great way to let people find you and get in contact with you. However, if you'd rather keep a low profile on Facebook just head to Account/Privacy Settings/ Search and uncheck the Public Search Results box. This will remove your public preview from Google, Bing, and Yahoo. You can also limit Facebook's internal search from the same page, using the drop down menu to decide who can find you.
6. Avoid embarrassing pictures. Say you had a couple more drinks than you should have last night. You don't need the entire world to see you passed out, dressed with a poncho and holding a bottle of tequila on one hand -- but your friends are always happy to oblige. This is the classic Facebook problem and has led to everything from firings to break-ups.
Although you can't prevent your friends from tagging you, it's possible to keep the infamous photo or video from showing up in your contacts' news feeds by going to the Friends, Tags and Connections page and modifying the setting next to Photos and Videos of Me. The safest thing to do is make them visible only to you selecting the customize option. You can then share pictures or videos on a case by case basis while you work on your drinking problems.
7. Protect your photo albums. Besides pictures and videos uploaded by others, you can also make your photo albums visible only to you or specific friends. This must be done on an album by album basis from your Personal Information and Posts page or when creating the album itself -- just click on the drop down next to Privacy and choose an option.
8. Take yourself out of social ads. Facebook says it doesn't give third-party advertisers the right to use your data for their campaigns, but it doesn’t seem opposed to the idea of allowing this "in the future" either. If you don't want Facebook to use your picture or name in custom ads directed at you and your friends, head over to the Facebook Ads tab in your Account Settings page and set both pull downs to No one.
9. Delete Facebook Apps. There are many applications that publish stories to your page without notice, and often times these are quiz apps shamelessly posting about sexual positions, your Hollywood look-alike and whatnot. In general, you shouldn't be too concerned about applications that you've come to trust over time, but delete anything you don't use or could cause an embarrassing wall post. Also, remember apps are allowed to store your data indefinitely.
To clean up your account go to Application Settings and change the drop down list to display Authorized apps. These are all the apps that can access your profile. Click on the X next to any of them to delete it.
Fortunately there are some easy-to-use tools like Reclaim Privacy that could be of help as an alternative to manually tweaking your privacy settings. Simply drag the "Scan for Privacy" bookmarklet to your browser's bookmarks toolbar, log in to Facebook and click to see which settings might be unexpectedly public. Settings that are considered risky, privacy-wise, are called out with red "insecure" alert buttons and links to the appropriate section to change them.
However, deactivating and deleting your Facebook account are two very different things. You'll merely be in a standby mode of sorts and Facebook will still keep emailing you with invitations and notifications from your friends. Your information is still there, and it will still be easily accessible to you (and Facebook) by just logging back in.
To actually delete your account you'll have to navigate through several pages and find a hypertext link buried in the help section -- or point your browser to http://www.facebook.com/help/contact.php?show_form=delete_account. Enter your password and fill out the text box. Make sure you don't log into Facebook or third party sites using Facebook Connect for two weeks, or your account will be reactivated. After this period your account will cease to exist.
"Managing your privacy online" is a three-piece series that will be delivered over the next few weeks, in which we will have a look at different popular Web services to give you pointers on how to safely navigate through them.
Read Part 2: Managing Your Privacy Online: Search Engines
Read Part 3: Managing Your Privacy Online: BitTorrent Downloads