Is Facebook sharing your personal information?

How much personal information should you put on Facebook? Is it safe?
Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Thinkstock

It's generally thought that Facebook paranoia -- the persistent worry that Facebook might be selling, sharing or otherwise monkeying with your personal information -- basically follows the shape of a bell curve. Older generations don't tend to worry about it because they're not always entirely familiar with the technology, while younger people either don't understand the risks or don't care.

For those of us in the middle, privacy can be a major Internet concern. And for something as widespread, popular and socially important as Facebook, those questions can lead us to a lot of interesting places. We don't want to be marketed to, we don't want to get hit with spam from third-party sources, and, most of all, we don't want our private social circles and experiences to feel like they're being monetized or subjected to surveillance outside our control. After all, that would negate the purpose of a site like Facebook.


Most of us understand that the Internet only has the information that we provide it: "Think before you click" is a common warning for all users, regardless of age. But for a site like Facebook, that can get complicated: After all, everything about the experience of using Facebook tells you that you should be adding more information, whether it's to connect with more people, find old friends or simply represent yourself more fully in the Facebook community. And each bit of this information is a choice that you make, meaning that you're the one with the power.

But the worries persist, and no matter how much you know about Facebook and how it works, you can still get that old paranoia in the back of your head. Whether it's the latest hacker controversy or rumors of behind-the-scenes deals being made, it always seems like there's something to be concerned about. Let's take a look at the different ways Facebook collects and shares information, as well as what you can do to take that power back.


The Controversies and the Facts

The first time you get hit with a targeted ad, a suggestion for a new friend or something else that seems based on your personal information, it can be a little intimidating. It's almost like there are elves in that machine, picking out ads just for you. And, of course, that's pretty much exactly what's going on -- only instead of elves, it's computer servers, and they don't know anything about you, or care.

They just take a list of everybody who's interested in soccer, for example -- whether they've posted about recent news or games, clicked "like" on a team or event, or listed themselves as playing for a team -- and then push the same soccer-oriented ad toward everybody. The elves never even know your name.


Facebook uses and shares your personal information in many ways that basically operate on this same principle: By aggregating it (making a big pile of the data), they make sure that you're not personally attached to the information itself. After all, marketers don't really care about you, either. They just want to divert their advertising to anybody who might like to buy their stuff. And, of course, on the other end, they just want to know how many people are even interested in the first place. Does it bother you if Facebook tells an advertiser that 100,000 people like a given movie, if you just happen to be one of those 100,000 people?

Of course, when you sign on to third-party applications and sites, or connect your accounts through Facebook, you're agreeing to a bit more than that. But Facebook takes precautions to make sure those other companies don't use your information in sketchy ways, to the degree that it can, and takes pains to ensure that you know what you're getting into before you agree.

The final controversial way Facebook can share your data is when matters of legality come into play. If there's a reasonable belief that illegal, terroristic or abusive behavior is going on, Facebook will cooperate with the authorities. However, here we're also talking about jurisdiction, which means that for users in countries that don't benefit from the same freedoms and rights that Americans do, Facebook might be cooperating with investigations and governments of which you might not personally approve.


Safeguarding Your Personal Information

The easiest way to ensure that Facebook doesn't share your information? Don't give it to them in the first place!
Hemera Technologies/

The good news is that all of these things are under your control. You have the power. And with a little diligence, you can design a Facebook experience perfectly in line with the way you want to use the site.

It starts with input. If you don't want personal information available to Facebook, don't give it up. You don't even have to provide a photo: Your name, gender and date of birth are all that's required to sign up, and the latter two can even be hidden, if you'd prefer.


If you don't want people to be able to find you -- your profile, posts, content or personal information -- on search engines, it only takes a few clicks to make you practically invisible.

What happens with your Facebook profile is entirely up to you, if you're willing to explore your security options and settings. Yes, those photos from last Saturday may be pretty embarrassing, but it's simple to untag yourself from them -- or even set your privacy settings so that you never get tagged at all. By digging into your privacy and notification settings, as well as your lists, you can make sure nobody ever sees anything you don't want them to see, and that you're notified the second anybody else says anything about you.

Most of us don't really bother to check out the privacy settings in detail, but if you just sit down and play with them for a while, most of the user settings are designed to be pretty easy to use. By defining different parts of your profile at different security levels, you can keep security risks to a minimum while still using the site's functionality.

The major roadblock here is intimidation. You may think of Facebook as a giant company, or a shifty organization, or a haven for stalkers. You might think that the privacy settings are intentionally difficult to use, or that Facebook could profit from misusing your information. But the fact is that none of that is actually true. The reason those settings seem so complicated is actually because they're trying to help you find the right level of security for every piece of information you offer.

Don't be intimidated by Facebook: It's a tool, just like any other machine. For more Facebook articles, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Christofides, Emily et al. "Hey Mom, What's on Your Facebook? Comparing Facebook Disclosure and Privacy in Adolescents and Adults." Social Psychological and Personality Science. May 17, 2011. (July 18, 2011)
  • Gilbertson, Scott. "Facebook Privacy Changes Hint at a Brave New, Twitter-Like, World." Wired. March 2009. (July 18, 2011)
  • Goodin, Dan. "How to sniff out private information on Facebook." The Register. June 2007. (July 18, 2011)
  • ibid. "Facebook's Gone Rogue; It's Time for an Open Alternative." Wired. May 2010. (July 18, 2011)
  • Muscavage, Amanda. "Facebook denies private information leak." Washington Examiner. May 2011. (July 18, 2011)
  • Opsahl, Kurt. "Facebook Further Reduces Your Control Over Personal Information." Electronic Frontier Foundation. April 2010. (July 18, 2011)
  • Quain, John R. "100 Million Facebook Users Learn True Meaning of Going Public." FOX News. July 2010. (July 18, 2011)
  • Reals, Tucker. "Facebook Personal Info of 100M Users Published." CBS News. July 29, 2010. (July 18, 2011)
  • Singel, Ryan. "Facebook Private Profiles Not As Private As You Think They Are." Wired: Threat Level Blog. June 2007. (July 18, 2011)
  • Sophos Security. "Sophos Facebook ID probe shows 41% of users happy to reveal all to potential identity thieves." Sophos Press Office. August 2007. (July 18, 2011)
  • Van Buskirk, Eliot. "Report: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Doesn't Believe In Privacy." Wired. April 2010. (July 18, 2011)
  • Wortham, Jenna. "Facebook Glitch Brings New Privacy Worries." The New York Times. May 10, 2010. (July 18, 2011)