Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Facebook: Privacy, Security and You

Facebook Logo
It's no surprise that Facebook has garnered a lot of negative press over its privacy overhaul from a week or so ago. As soon as one logged into Facebook, the company asked that they personalize their privacy settings. That is, they asked all 350 million or so users to read, understand and act appropriately to the major privacy changes they've made. And in a step, which may have been done with good intentions (although I highly doubt it), Facebook "recommended" some settings of its own. Most of you should have already gone through the exercise, but if you have not, it's worth mentioning that I personally do not recommend Facebook's "recommended" privacy settings.

Facebook Greeting

Facebook Recommended Privacy Settings

Facebook Recommended Settings

The privacy announcement itself, the preceding open letter (from Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg), and the announcement made five months earlier made it apparent that Facebook was revamping its privacy policy, settings, use, etc. The changes were thought to be about simplification and putting more control for the user on the behemoth social networking site. After all, Facebook has received criticism for its confusing privacy settings by such groups as the Canadian Privacy Commissioner and the Norwegian consumer protection agency. While they may have simplified the privacy settings, they unfortunately also took away some settings making at least one particular area "publicly available information."

This all made the simpler privacy settings seem as if it was done with the intention of encouraging users to be more transparent in a very indirect fashion. One might even suggest that it was done in a mischievous manner. Coupled with some of the negative (for the user) changes made, and it comes as no surprise that Facebook is receiving quite a bit of negative publicity. Facebook apps (like the quizzes), for example, have been a point of contention, given the amount of personal data access the developers of such apps have. This raised eyebrows with the very same Canadian Privacy Commission that had previous concerns (see above); along with the ACLU. Naturally, the amount of privacy changes, and the manner in which Facebook suggests settings prompted the ACLU to be concerned once again; and rightfully so.

Other groups include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which did a very thorough review of some of Facebook's good, bad and ugly privacy changes. I highly recommend you read it if you're serious and curious about how much of your personal data you share on Facebook.

As of earlier this evening, there was a report talks about how Facebook is suggesting that you lie can change your personal information to protect yourself. That's a good idea, but keep in mind that you may be in violation of Facebook's Terms of Service. As an additional measure, I strongly recommend that you review your own Facebook privacy settings in detail and ensure that you're not making them available to "everyone."

Google Logo
With the recent Google announcement of real-time search (partnering with Twitter, Facebook and others), having a privacy setting of "everyone" now means literally EVERY ONE. Even worse, once the search engines get a hold of the data, it's cached on another (their) system where changing your settings on Facebook may simply be too late. It's no longer in Facebook's hands/systems to secure in accordance with your changes. At this point, simply put, your data has left the building.

Still, I advise each and every one of you to take the time to understand and customize your privacy settings. Doing so will help protect yourselves, your family and any kids you know who use the service. Knowing, of course, that there's a balance that must be achieved between the extreme ends of absolute security on one end, and very public on the other. I invite you to read about how to protect yourself (4 things to do); and to watch the following video to help you get started with customizing your privacy settings.

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTpa3AS39uA

With 350+ million users, it's worth noting that it may simply be too late. Most have seen the privacy announcement, made changes and/or ignored it and have simply moved on using Facebook how they always have, unaware of the ramifications.

At the end of the day, is Facebook secure for me to use? Despite some of the losses in user security/privacy controls, the ongoing negative criticism, and with the right settings in place, Facebook is still a very usable and joyous social networking site. If not careful, however, it could easily find itself in the social dump of yesteryear along with many others; which I won't mention (ahm ... MySpace, Friendster, etc.).

Update: Facebook today, December 17, 2009, was challenged on privacy changes/rules.  ▣

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