Privacy is one of the biggest challenges on social networking Web sites. Besides putting users at risk, the company behind a site jeopardizes its reputation if it doesn't make privacy a priority. Social network giant Facebook knows that hazard well. Since its launch, Facebook has been a target for criticism regarding its open approach to user privacy, especially its decision to share rather than hide your personal information by default.
Fortunately, Facebook has provided privacy settings to keep your personal information safe. Before we dive in to those settings, let's take a look at some privacy vulnerabilities you need to be aware of as a Facebook user. This is an important checklist to keep in mind when you choose how to share your personal information:
- By default, your status, photos, posts and bio can be viewed by everyone. If you never change your settings, this information is completely public. If there's anything you plan on posting that you want to restrict to certain users, you'll need to use some of the privacy settings described in this article.
- Your contact information defaults to "friends only." If you rely on this default setting, be sure you know you can trust someone with that info before you connect to that person on Facebook. Later in this article, we'll talk about how to restrict this information to a subset of Friends instead of all Friends.
- "Friends of friends" aren't in your control. If you choose the "friends of friends" level of security for certain content, consider whether you want to trust that content with people who aren't mutual friends.
- You can't take it back once it's out there. If any content you post is public, someone else could copy and post it elsewhere without your knowledge. In addition, search engines could cache that content and display it in search results for a period of time. As a result, if you hide content after it has been open to the public, it could still be floating around the Internet long after you conceal it.
- Allowing third party applications access to your information is your responsibility. When you connect to an app or link to another Web site, you grant that entity access to your information, and Facebook warns you that the risk is yours. Research the app through reliable sources, and decide if you trust the people behind the app before permitting access to your personal information.
Now that you know a few of Facebook's potential privacy threats, let's look at how to keep those threats under control. We'll do this with a tour through your privacy settings (Account > Privacy Settings). Let's start with the big section in the middle: "sharing on Facebook."
Important Facebook Privacy Settings
Using the "sharing in Facebook" section of your Facebook privacy settings, you can choose what you share and with whom. When you select any of the security profiles on the left, Facebook shows a chart of the settings associated with that label. Facebook displays a green check mark next to the label for the profile you're currently using.
If you haven't changed any sharing settings, you'll have Facebook's default "recommended" settings. Facebook also has three other built-in security profiles: "everyone," "friends of friends" or "friends only" [source: Facebook]. To switch to a different sharing profile, select that profile on the left and click "apply these settings" below the chart.
If Facebook's built-in profiles don't provide the privacy combination you're looking for, you can create your own custom sharing settings. To create or edit these custom settings any time, click the "customize settings" link below the settings chart. When you're using custom settings, Facebook adds the "custom" label to the list of sharing profiles displayed on your privacy settings page.
When customizing your sharing settings, the "customize settings" page has 20 different categories of information to choose from. Here, you can select the privacy level Facebook should use for your profile content, posts to your wall, tagging in photos and other features. Facebook saves and applies each selection immediately.
Another option is the "preview my profile" link at the top of the "customize settings" page. This shows you what your Facebook profile looks like to everyone other than your friends. This is a handy feature to use even if you're not changing any settings.
Sometimes Facebook's "friends only" setting isn't restrictive enough, especially if you have hundreds of friends and different levels of trust regarding your private information. Next, let's look at how to refine your privacy settings with some additional Facebook features.
Facebook Privacy Issues
Sometimes the "friends only" preference setting isn't enough for your desired level of privacy for certain information. Facebook has three additional features to deal with this issue and enhance your privacy settings.
First, Facebook lets you restrict certain content to subsets of your Friends by using custom Friends lists. For example, you might have hundreds of friends you don't mind seeing your profile, but only a dozen or so close friends you want to share family photos with. You can create and manage these lists on your Friends management page (Account> Edit Friends) while you're signed in to Facebook. You're the only one who can see the titles and users in your custom lists.
You can use these custom Friends lists in your privacy settings, too. To do this, select "Customize" when selecting a privacy level for sharing that content. Then, use the name of your custom Friends lists as you would individual user names to show or hide that content. See our article How to Artfully Cull Your Facebook Friends List for more about creating, editing and using these lists.
Your second option for enhanced privacy is to use the lock menu when posting specific content. For example, suppose you have posts set to "everyone" in your privacy settings, but you want to post a question for only your "friends" to answer. Each time you make a post or create a photo album, you can use the lock icon to select who can see that post. This allows you to override your privacy settings for that one post. The lock icon menu works the same as the drop-down menus you used when selecting your overall privacy settings.
The third enhanced privacy option in Facebook is block lists. This lets you don an invisibility cloak when certain users try to find you on Facebook. Likewise, it makes those users equally invisible to you. You can add people to your block list by name or by e-mail address. You can also block app and event invites from specific Friends, too, without blocking them altogether. To manage block lists, click Account > Privacy Settings and then click the "edit your lists" link under the "block lists" section of your privacy settings.
If you block a user, there are some important details you should know about how Facebook handles the block. One is that you have the option to tell Facebook why you're blocking the user. This could be useful if you need to alert Facebook to a user's behavior. Also, when you start the block, Facebook immediately removes the user from your Friends list. If you remove a name or e-mail address from your block list, you'll have to add the user as a Friend if you want to reconnect, and Facebook will prevent you from adding that same name or address back to the list for 48 hours.
Now that you have your content sharing under control, let's shift to your privacy settings for user searches, Facebook apps and third-party Web sites.
Protect Privacy for Searches and Apps
Regardless of any other privacy settings, Facebook makes your name, profile picture, gender and Facebook networks available for searching by all users except those you've blocked. Facebook also makes some additional information searchable by everyone, such as your current city, hometown, education and work.
You can customize who can use this additional information to find you. To do this, click "view settings" under "connecting on Facebook" in your privacy settings. Then, use the drop-down lists by each item to change whether "friends only" or "friends of friends" can use this instead of the default group, "everyone." Facebook immediately saves and applies any changes you make here.
Note that these settings only affect the way your information is used for searches, and you can still hide all the same information from people just browsing your profile. For example, suppose you restrict your hometown information to Friends only, yet you still allow people to search for you by hometown. In that case, you could show up in search results for people who share your hometown. However, a user who clicks your name in those search results will still only see the parts of your profile you've shared to the public.
So far, we've looked at privacy between users in Facebook. Privacy extends beyond users, though, to Facebook apps, search engines and other Web sites. You can adjust your default settings for these from your privacy settings page by clicking the "edit your settings" link under "apps and Web sites."
For Facebook apps, you already know that you're responsible for anything that happens between you and the app. To control your privacy settings for apps, use the "edit settings" button next to the list of apps you use. On the "apps you use" page, you can manage the complete list of apps you've granted access to. There, you can remove apps altogether, or you can edit the settings for each individual app to remove any access the app doesn't require to function.
In addition to restricting apps themselves, you can also control app-related information. In the "apps and Web sites" privacy settings, you can select what information from your account is available to your Friends when you're both using an app. You can also limit who can see what apps you're using and when.
For Web sites, you can use the two options at the bottom of the "apps and Web sites" privacy settings page to toggle whether third party Web sites can interact with your Facebook profile. The first option is "instant personalization," a Facebook innovation that uses your profile to customize your experience when you access partner sites like Pandora and Yelp. This is enabled by default. As of this writing, you can enable or disable this option for all partner sites, but you cannot select from individual partners.
The other Web site privacy option lets you enable or disable whether search engines like Google or Bing can show a preview of your Facebook profile as part of their search results. This is also enabled by default. As indicated in the text for this option, a search engine may cache search results for some time, causing anything you initially shared publicly to be accessible while that cache is active, even if you restrict access to it in Facebook later.
In this article, we've toured the privacy settings in Facebook and looked at some often overlooked options that put you in control of your personal information. Sneak over to the next page for even more information on Facebook privacy.
More Great Links
- Facebook. "Controlling How You Share." (July 18, 2011) http://www.facebook.com/privacy/explanation.php
- Facebook. "Help Center, Friends: New Friends Page." (July 11, 2011) http://www.facebook.com/help/?faq=200538509990389
- Facebook. "Help Center, Privacy: Blocking people." (July 11, 2011) http://www.facebook.com/help/?faq=131930530214371
- Facebook. "Instant Personalization." (July 18, 2011) http://www.facebook.com/instantpersonalization/
- Hooper, Simon. "Expert: Social networkers risk 'losing control' of privacy." Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. Feb. 18, 2009. (July 18, 2011) http://articles.cnn.com/2009-02-18/tech/facebook.privacy_1_social-networking-sites-social-networking-facebook?_s=PM:TECH
- Soghoian, Chris. "Exclusive: The next Facebook privacy scandal." CNET News. CBS Interactive. Jan. 23, 2008. (July 18, 2011) http://news.cnet.com/8301-13739_3-9854409-46.html