Can Facebook Be Private?

Given the slew of embarrassing stories you've no doubt seen about users accidentally sharing too-personal information, the idea of preserving privacy on a social network may seem like going outside during a thunderstorm and expecting to stay dry.

But at the same time, sites such as Facebook are developing into major hubs for seeing new photos of the latest baby in the family and keeping in touch with far-flung friends and relatives. For example, when my brother recently suffered a major injury, the family got updates on his status via Facebook. So if you'd like to try to stay dry in that online social storm, here are some rules of thumb for using the site without letting the entire world know your business.

Know Your Terms of Service

The site is implementing new terms of service after a major PR flap earlier this year. Critics had interpreted earlier announced changes to mean that the company was asserting ownership over anything you might post, but Facebook says it was misunderstood. The new terms, which were approved in a user vote, make clear that "you own all of the content and information you post on Facebook," and that you give Facebook a license to use things like photos or videos you post. See the full new agreement, and a new non-binding statement of general principles. Facebook says it may allow users to vote on future changes, but you can take more immediate action to keep your info private.

Ditch Data-Snooping Apps

Many privacy advocates frown on Facebook applications. The company requires that app creators obey certain rules (for example, apps are barred from saving your data for longer than 24 hours), but it doesn't vet these apps before they're released. When you install one, Facebook will warn you that the app can access your personal data, but it won't tell you exactly what personal data that app uses. If you're concerned about privacy, you might want to resist the urge to install that "Discover your Hippy [sic] name" app (and ask your friends to do the same). To see what apps you have currently authorized (and perhaps clear out a few unnecessary ones), go to Settings, Application Settings. Then choose Authorized from the 'Show' drop-down menu.

Limit Your Friends' Apps

What's more, if a friend installs an app, the program will by default be able to see anything you've shared with that friend. To restrict the data available to friends' apps, go to Settings, Privacy Settings and click the Applications link. Click the Settings tab up top, and de-select any check boxes on that page for info you don't want shared. Keep in mind that these settings won't change what the apps that you install can read, only the apps that your friends install.

Control What Certain People Can See

Your next good move is to make use of a little-known feature that allows you to create a list of friends, then restrict content-sharing to certain lists. For example, you can put all business acquaintances on one list, and restrict photo viewing for those people so they can't see every (potentially embarrassing) photo that you (or they) appear in. Another list, consisting of your closest friends, might be allowed to see everything.

To create a list, click on the Friends link, and under 'Lists' on the left side, click Create. Then, to restrict sharing info with only certain lists, head to Settings, Privacy Settings and click Profile. Select a Profile item's drop-down menu and choose Customize. Then select Some Friends in the resultant pop-up, and enter the name of the friends list you want to choose.

Use Profile Preview

If this seems like an awful lot of clicking and hunting, it is. Facebook says it's looking into making things simpler, but for now its privacy settings are a maze. One very helpful tool that can make clear what you're sharing with whom is Facebook's profile preview tool: Go to Settings, Privacy Settings, then Profile, and type a friend's name in the box up top. You'll see your own profile as it would be viewed by that friend, and can then adjust your privacy settings accordingly.

Managing your apps and friend lists will likely give you the most bang for your buck, but for more helpful tips, check out this guide at AllFacebook.com.

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