Facebook Privacy: You should worry more about people than policies

Facebook users have until December 10th to vote on proposed changes to that site’s Data Use Policy and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. You can vote here. Although I think its great that people that are being given the option to voice opinions from a company that has been harshly criticized for making sudden changes in privacy policy without any prior notice, putting the focus on rather benign changes in policy verbiage distracts users from the biggest risks to online privacy: ourselves and our “friends.”

People can see what you post on Facebook

Think before you post. When you post to Facebook you can make your posts public, available to all your friends or available to a custom set of people. The custom setting allows you to limit who can see your post by allowing or denying access to individuals or lists. This seems like a great way to control your privacy, but

  • Custom settings can be confusing if you use a wide variety of combinations.
  • You might forget to change the settings. You can set a default, but the default can change if you overrode it on a previous post. It’s easy to overlook this when doing a quick status update.
  • Tagging someone on a post overrides your settings in order to allow that person’s friends to see the post if the other person’s settings allow it.
  • Anyone who sees your post can copy it or grab a screen shot of it.

People sometimes get sensitive about that last one. These are my friends! I trust them! Yes, but if you’ve never had a friend do something hurtful in a moment of anger you are lucky indeed. Also, their sharing may not be malicious. They may have thought your post was funny or thought-provoking or otherwise worthy of broader audience. Maybe they even tried to remove your identity before sharing it but didn’t do a very good job of it.

I repeat, think before you post. Don’t post anything that would be damaging to your career, your relationships, your reputation or your non-incarcerated lifestyle no matter how limited you think the audience may be.

Others can post on Facebook about you

Perhaps a bigger risk to your privacy on Facebook is what others post about you. This can particularly cause problems when a fairly private person is connected to a lot of oversharers. The worst examples are “friends” who post inappropriate pictures and statuses that include you, but privacy leaks from other people can be much more subtle and inadvertent. For example

  • You may choose to hide your birthday, but others put “Happy birthday!” messages on your wall. If they are more specific (i.e. “Welcome to 40!”)  they have revealed your birth year as well.
  • Your friends might be friends with people you want to avoid. You may keep a very limited friends list in Facebook, but your friends may post things about you that go to a far broader audience.
  • Your friends might not know what’s you want to keep private. A congratulatory post about a new job or pregnancy may not be welcome if that info isn’t supposed to be public knowledge.

Can your friends post stuff about you even if you aren’t on Facebook? Of course, which is one argument for having a Facebook account so you are more aware of what is being said.
What can you do to protect your privacy on Facebook?

As more people use Facebook for more things (including the comments on this blog) it is hard to avoid having an account, but you can decrease your risk of privacy problems there.

  • Think before you post. I can’t say it enough times. Treat every post as if it could become public one day. If it’s juicy it probably will.
  • Limit your friends. It sounds harsh but accepting a friend request grants that person rights to both see content you post and to tag you on their posts.
  • Use lists to limit which friends can see your more private posts, but be wary of my warnings above about custom settings.
  • Talk to your friends about your comfort with sharing. Let them know if you’d prefer that a certain subject stay off Facebook. True friends will respect that.
  • Check your privacy settings often. Click the arrow in the upper right corner of your Facebook page, select privacy settings and review everything.

For more online security and privacy tips read my information security basics and my advice on preventing Twitter spam and Facebook leaks.



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