Facebook Privacy: Secrets Unveiled

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Facebook Privacy
Psst...have you heard?

Brandon lost his virginity this weekend.

Victoria called out sick to work so she could see a concert.

And Tony -- poor Tony. Let's just say he spent some time at the doctor's office for a procedure that involved a latex glove and a lot of grimacing.

Let me fill you in on a little secret: I don't know any of these people. Thanks to Facebook, though, I know plenty of personal things about them. And I'm willing to wager that they might not realize anyone else -- their parents, their teachers, their bosses -- could just as easily know this stuff, too.

Welcome to the weird new world of Facebook's privacy jungle.

Facebook's Privacy Problem

Facebook Privacy Problem
Much has been made over Facebook and privacy over the years, but the social network's most recent privacy changes seem to be generating a particularly loud uproar. It's no surprise, really: Facebook's recent adjustments make it incredibly difficult to control your information in any reasonable way.

To wit: Achieving maximum privacy on Facebook now requires you to click through 50 settings and more than 170 options. And even that won't completely safeguard your info.

To fully understand Facebook's updated stance on privacy and your personal data, you'd have to wade through the company's 5,830-word privacy policy. That, as the astute crew from The New York Times noticed, is 1,287 words longer than the United States Constitution.

Those figures are attention-grabbing enough. But seeing what Facebook's privacy changes actually mean in practice is even more eye-opening.

Facebook Privacy: What the World Now Knows

Thanks to a couple of handy new tools, you can now check out exactly what Facebook is telling the world about you -- and about everyone else. First up is Openbook, a project created by three computer geeks from San Francisco.

Facebook Privacy Openbook
Openbook lets you search through Facebook's publicly available user data to find out what everyone is saying. You enter a search term -- Openbook suggests loaded phrases like "cheated test," "don't tell anyone," and "lost virginity," but you can enter anything you want -- and the site displays pages of relevant Facebook status updates from recent hours.

Now, some of the things you'll find are perfectly innocuous. And others are clearly written by people who, for better or for worse, don't mind sharing their most intimate moments with the world. (We all know a few of those sorts, right?)

Others, though, make you wonder. Does Rachel from San Jose really want everyone knowing what happened at the gynecologist's office on Thursday? Does Martin of New Jersey want his teachers to learn he cheated on his language test on Friday? And does Michael of Pensacola want his boss to hear he called in sick the other day in order to take an impromptu vacation?

Probably not; after all, most people don't think of Facebook in the same way they think of a more public social network such as Twitter. But all of that info's now out there, along with far worse things that I couldn't possibly print in this story.

Facebook Privacy: A Wake-Up Call

Facebook Privacy Problems
A service like Openbook is amusing, sure, but it's also a real wake-up call. If your info is public and you're fine with it, more power to you. But if you aren't fully aware of what you're now sharing on Facebook, you'd better launch your own personal privacy setting investigation before someone finds something you'll later regret.

Here's the tough truth: Even if you have certain pieces of information set to be private, it isn't hard for an outsider to connect the dots and fill in the blanks. Take our pal Brandon, for example -- remember him? He's the lucky fella who lost his virginity this weekend.

I clicked over to Brandon's Facebook profile after seeing his status update on Openbook. Because of Facebook's privacy setup -- which now forces you to have things like your interests and "likes" linked to publicly accessible groups or community pages -- it took only a few seconds for me to ascertain exactly where Brandon goes to high school and what year he'll graduate.

Martin, our test-cheating youngster from earlier, left some of those details out of his profile. But Facebook still lets anyone see his friends, his siblings, and all of the things he and his social circle "like" -- and it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to create a fairly detailed docket from those combined tidbits of info. It's enough to give anyone a mild shudder.

Protecting Your Facebook Privacy

So what to do? You can always say so long to Facebook, of course. Or you can choose to stay with the site and simply be vigilant about protecting your privacy. It isn't easy, but it can be done.

You can see what Facebook shares with the world about you by using this free tool at zesty.ca; just input your Facebook user ID or account number (found by looking at the URL for your Facebook profile page), then click through the fields to see what's actually public. The tool won't take into account info that could be shared by applications or Facebook's "instant personalization" feature, but it's a start.

After that, get ready to dig. This daunting chart breaks down all of the categories of settings you'll need to review (hint: be sure to clear out a couple hours of your afternoon). This story provides a slightly less overwhelming summary of the main settings you should revisit. And this one goes through some additional steps you'll want to take to address the aforementioned new "instant personalization" options.

Do all of that, and you oughta be covered -- at least, that is, until Facebook unveils its next "user-friendly" privacy feature.*

* Just kidding about that last part.**

** Maybe.

When not adjusting the privacy settings on his own Facebook page, JR Raphael presides over his geek-humor galaxy at eSarcasm.com.

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