A billion people worldwide use Facebook to share details of their lives with their friends. Trouble is, they also might be unintentionally divulging matters they consider private—to friends…coworkers, clients and employers…marketing companies…and even to competitors, scammers and identity thieves.
Six ways Facebook could be compromising your private information and how to protect yourself…
1. The new Timeline format exposes your old mistakes. Timeline, introduced in late 2011, makes it easy for people to search back through your old Facebook posts, something that was very difficult to do in the past. That could expose private matters and embarrassing photos that you’ve long since forgotten posting.
What to do: To hide Timeline posts that you do not wish to be public, hold the cursor over the post, click the pencil icon that appears in the upper-right corner, then click “Hide from Timeline” or “Delete.”
2. Facebook apps steal personal details about you—even details that you specifically told Facebook you wished to keep private. Third-party apps are software applications available through Facebook but created by other companies. These include games and quizzes popular on Facebook such as FarmVille and Words with Friends, plus applications such as Skype, TripAdvisor and Yelp. Most Facebook apps are free—the companies that offer them make their money by harvesting personal details about users from their Facebook pages, then selling that information to advertisers.
Many apps collect only fairly innocuous information, such as age, hometown and gender, that probably is not secret. But others dig deep into Facebook data, even accessing information that you may have designated private, such as religious affiliation, political leanings and sexual orientation.
What to do: Read user agreements and privacy policies carefully to understand what information you are agreeing to share before signing up for any app. The free Internet tool Privacyscore is one way to evaluate the privacy policies of the apps you currently use (www.Facebook.com/privacyscore). You also can tighten privacy settings by clicking the lock icon in the upper-right-hand corner. Select “See More Settings,” then choose “Apps” from the left menu. Under “Apps You Use,” click “Edit” to see your privacy options.
3. Facebook “like” buttons spy on you—even when you don’t click on them. Each time you click a “like” button on a Web site, you broadcast your interest in a subject not just to your Facebook friends but also to Facebook and its advertising partners.
But if you’re a Facebook user and you visit a Web page that has a “like” button, Facebook will record that you visited that page even if you don’t click “like.” Facebook claims to keep Web-browsing habits private, but there’s no guarantee that the information won’t get out.
What to do: One way to prevent Facebook from knowing where you go online is to set your Web browser to block all cookies. Each browser has a different procedure for doing this, and you will have to re-enter your user ID and password each time you visit certain Web sites.
Alternatively, to eliminate cookies created during a specific browser session, you can use the “InPrivate Browsing” mode (Internet Explorer), “Incognito” mode (Google Chrome) or “Private Browsing” mode (Firefox and Safari).
There also are free plug-ins to stop Facebook from tracking you, such as Facebook Blocker (www.Webgraph.com/resources/facebookblocker).
4. “Social readers” tell your Facebook friends too much about your reading habits. Some sites, including The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, offer “social reader” Facebook tools. If you sign up for one, it will tell your Facebook friends what articles you read on the site.
Problem: The tools don’t share articles with your Facebook friends only when you click a “like” button—they share everything you read on the site.
What to do: If you’ve signed up for a social reader app, delete it. Click the lock icon in the upper-right-hand corner, select “See More Settings,” then choose “Apps” on the left. Locate the app, click the “X” and follow the directions to delete.
5. Photo and video tags can hurt you. They could let others see you in unflattering and unprofessional situations. If you work for a straight-laced employer or with conservative clients or you are in the job market, you already may realize that it’s unwise to post pictures of yourself in unprofessional and possibly embarrassing situations. But you may fail to consider that pictures that other people post of you also can hurt you.
A Facebook feature called photo tags has dramatically increased this risk. The tags make it easy for Facebook users to identify by name the people in photos they post, then link these photos to the Facebook pages of all users pictured.
What to do: Untag yourself from unflattering photos. Hold your cursor over the post, and click the pencil icon. Select “Report/Remove Tag,” then follow the directions to remove the tag. Enable review of all future photos you’re tagged in before they appear on your Timeline. Click the lock icon in the upper right, then “See More Settings” and select “Timeline and Tagging.” Then click “Edit” next to “Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your Timeline,” and click “Enabled” on the drop-down menu.
6. Your Facebook friends—and those friends’ friends—may reveal too much about you. Even if you’re careful not to provide sensitive information about yourself on Facebook, those details could be exposed by the company you keep.
Example: A 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found it was possible to determine with great accuracy whether a man was gay. This was based on factors such as the percentage of his Facebook friends who were openly gay—even if this man did not disclose his sexual orientation himself.
If several of your Facebook friends list a potentially risky or unhealthy activity, such as smoking or bar hopping, among their interests—or include posts or pictures of themselves pursuing this interest—an insurer, college admissions officer, employer or potential employer might conclude that you likely enjoy this pursuit yourself.
What to do: Take a close look at the interests and activities mentioned by your Facebook friends. If more than a few of them discuss a dangerous hobby, glory in unprofessional behavior or are open about matters of sexual orientation or political or religious beliefs that you consider private, consider removing most or all of these people from your friends list or at least make your friends list private. Click your name in the upper right, then click “Friends,” then “Edit” and select “Only Me” from the drop-down menu.
Source: John Sileo, president of The Sileo Group, a Denver-based identity theft prevention consulting and education provider that has worked with the Department of Defense, the Federal Reserve Bank and many other clients. He speaks internationally about online privacy, social-media exposure and digital reputation. He is author of Privacy Means Profit: Prevent Identity Theft and Secure Your Bottom Line (Wiley). www.Sileo.com