Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reclaim Your Privacy on Facebook (or try at least)!

I've been posting for quite sometime on Facebook's war on privacy. I suppose the good news for today is that what I'm going to post are simply ways to take action. These actions include why its important that your friends also take important privacy steps to protect your identity, how to tell Facebook to start respecting your privacy more, and finally, how to reclaim your privacy on your own through a new tool I found (I have not tried it yet myself).

Trust me, no one is being hyperbolic by calling Facebook out on their recent practices. Check out some of my recent posts that detail all the ways the company has actively and intentionally undermined user privacy...all of course for the almighty dollar. To read a few recent posts, just click here, here, here, and here.

This is all important because as we entrust more and more of our private information to websites and online social networks like Facebook. As such, we need to at least have some kind of complimentary, and understood, privacy rules of the game.

Aside from the recent changes Facebook made to its privacy policy and use of personal data on third party websites - changes that take away important control that users had over who has access to their information - there's also been a recent study demonstrating how almost just as important as what you allow people to see is what your friends do.

The downside is this new research suggests that it might be nearly impossible to protect your privacy, at least based on the current choices we as consumers are being granted.

Here's the deal, as reported in an article on Alternet: In a study conducted by Alan Mislove of Northeastern University and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, researchers tested an algorithm that could accurately infer the personal attributes of Facebook users by simply looking at their friend lists. The research culled profile information from two detailed social-network data sets: one from a sample of almost 4,000 students and alumni on Facebook at Rice University and another from more than 63,000 users in the New Orleans regional network.

Researchers developed an algorithm to see if they could accurately infer attributes like high school or college, department of study, hometown, graduation year and even dormitory by dissecting these users’ friend lists. The study cut to the core of the debate surrounding the social-networking site: Is your personal profile your own or, to paraphrase anti-Facebook crusader Leif Harmsen, is it the site’s profile about you?


According to the study, only about 5 percent of users in each network had changed their privacy settings to make their friend list inaccessible. (To hide it, enter your Facebook profile, click on the edit icon above your friends and unclick the blue box marked “Show Friend List to everyone.”) In the New Orleans network, personal profiles remained largely accessible to researchers. Some 58 percent of users disclosed university attended, 42 percent disclosed employers, 35 percent disclosed interests and 19 percent gave the public access to their location.

Because of this information given, Mislove explained that it was relatively easy for his algorithm to accurately pinpoint attributes such as geography (dormitory or hometown) or education background (which high school or college users attend) for a specific user.

For more on how your friends privacy settings effect your privacy, I'd suggest you check out the article by Laurie Sullivan of MediaPost. She writes:

Facebook members have begun to realize that the ramifications of not opting-in to privacy controls that lock down information in profiles may go well beyond their control. The old adage that every action has consequences appears to have surfaced in Google search engine results.

Some people who chose not to opt-in to Facebook privacy settings have found their name in search results on google.com; and listed beneath, the names of a few of their Facebook friends. There's one problem. Unfortunately, Facebook members who choose to keep their profiles public, rather than opt-in to privacy settings, take their friends who want to remain private into the open, too. They do it unknowingly and unwillingly.


It appears that the list of friends in search engine queries have begun to surface most recently on Google.co.uk, Stott says. Facebook acknowledged MediaPost's request for comment, but has not responded with an official statement.

A Facebook spokesperson explains that members can control the visibility of public search listing through privacy settings under the "search" section. This setting provides control over what is shared.

In an interesting portrayal of Facebook's privacy maze, The New York Times points out that anyone wanting to protect their privacy will need to navigate through 50 settings with more than 170 options. Facebook says it wants to offer precise controls for sharing on the Internet, but instead created a maze that not even the brightest want to follow.

Okay, so now its becoming a little clearer...at least in that we know, A. we should all be encouraging our friends to utilize the strictest privacy settings, and B. Facebook needs to get its shit together, and quick.

With that, let's get to the two actions I mentioned I'd also provide today. One came in the form of an action alert from Moveon.org and Senator Chuck Schumer, who has been advocating for tighter privacy regulations of social networking sites (ironically he's also been fighting for a National ID Card).

Here's some of the email, and the link to where you can send a message to Facebook:

...I'm asking you to join me in urging Facebook to stop sharing your information without your permission, by setting your status today to read:

"Facebook should stop sharing my personal info with outside companies without my permission. If you agree, set this as your status today and join this group: http://bit.ly/d1ZB6h"

Facebook provides a valuable service, but online social networks need to allow users to retain control over their own personal information.

The information that Facebook is now sharing with third-parties and with the public is very different from the spirit of the site's previous terms of service. Certain parts of your profile, including your hometown, interests and activities, and your profile picture, must be made public or deleted—even if you restricted whom they were shared with before.

Certain third-party partners now have access to all of this information, including your list of friends and their information, as soon as you visit their websites—without asking your permission.

These changes undermine the protection of your personal information on the web.

Recently, I sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking them to examine the use and distribution of personal information by social networking sites like Facebook. Three other senators and I also sent a letter directly to Facebook, urging them to provide an opt-in mechanism that would seek your permission before sharing your information.

Facebook can take immediate action to remedy this situation—but before they will they need to hear from enough users who care.

Can you join me in advocating for privacy on the web?

So now you have Schumer's little pitch...which is worth sending...Facebook should at least hear from us that this just ain't right...

Now, for action number two, which I will try myself here in a minute, comes from a PC World article entitled "Test Your Facebook Privacy Settings: Here's How".

JR Raphael writes: We all know the story, right? Privacy controls are broken everyone's getting irritated, Facebook's not too concerned, blah flippidy-freakin' blah.

Don't get me wrong: That's all important information. What's been lacking all this time, though, is a simple fix -- an easy way to make sure your personal Facebook data is actually protected. Sure, you could go on a scavenger hunt to find
Facebook's 170-plus privacy options scattered throughout a dozen different pages.

But even then, you're likely to miss something in the virtual labyrinth the company's created.
Today, there's a better way. Behold: the one-stop privacy fix-up tool for your Facebook profile.

The Facebook Privacy Scanner

The tool is called ReclaimPrivacy, and its name pretty much tells you what you need to know. Using it is simple: Just surf over to ReclaimPrivacy.org and look for the link that says "Scan for Privacy." Add that link as a bookmark in your browser, either by dragging it onto a bookmark toolbar or by right-clicking it and selecting the "Bookmark" option.

Now head over to Facebook. Sign into your account, then open the bookmarked link.

This will cause ReclaimPrivacy's Facebook privacy scanner to open right at the top of your current Facebook window. Within a few seconds, ReclaimPrivacy will scan through six areas of potential privacy concern and let you know how your account stacks up.

ReclaimPrivacy analyzes everything from your personal information controls to your "instant personalization" settings. It
even checks account settings that affect what your friends could inadvertently share about you without your knowledge.

For each area, ReclaimPrivacy will give you a green ("good"), yellow ("caution"), or red ("insecure") ranking. If you hit yellow or red, it'll provide you with specific steps to fix the problem so you don't have to waste time searching for the right setting.

After seeing some of the very personal details now floating around out there
(hint: someone lost their virginity this weekend), that's one function well-worth "liking."

So there you have it...as best a breakdown I can do in 10 minutes!!! Now let's get to it...

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