Monday, April 26, 2010

Ensuring Your Facebook Account Doesn’t Harm You

Over the weekend, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart expressed concerns in a newspaper story about the world’s most popular social networking site, Facebook.

Last week, Facebook changed the way its estimated 400-million members could share information – most without really knowing it. The thumbs-up symbol with the innocuous “like” next to it has been a familiar and easy way for Facebook users to positively comment on a friend’s posting on the social networking site.
But as of last week, that like symbol will not be exclusive to the Facebook domain – now anyone on any partnering Internet site can click that symbol.

For Step-By-Step Instructions on How to Protect Your Private Personal Information on Facebook, scroll down to the end of this article.

At first glance, it seems pretty harmless -- if you like something on your travels through cyberspace, what’s the harm in telling your Facebook friends?

But just by clicking that thumbs-up symbol you are automatically linking your Facebook account to that participating site’s, and the next thing you know, someone you don’t know has access to information all about you – from your name, age and sex, to your hometown, even your email address, and telephone numbers, if you provided that information to Facebook when you initially joined.

“I’m very concerned about these changes,” Stoddart says in the article. “More than half-a-million developers will have access to this data.”

Stoddart goes on to explain how unlike previously, where Facebook’s policies forced developers to delete this personal information within 24-hours, the new changes allow developers, and many other partner companies participating in the new “like” program, to retain personal information indefinitely.

Unscrupulous marketers could use this personal information for any reason beyond the traditional marketing of goods and services for sale.

It could increase the amount of scams, trying to lure unsuspecting Facebook users away from their hard earned coin. We’ve all seen those annoyingly obvious emails from some long lost relative in some third-world country, trying desperately to contact us about collecting an outrageously large inheritance.
Those scams may not be so obvious if the scam artists have obtained your personal information – in fact it could look very legitimate. All the worse – you voluntarily gave these scum bags your personal private information just by using Facebook’s “like” feature.

Other malicious uses could be to blackmail you, or to harass you, forcing you to pay up just to get those you willingly and without thinking gave your personal private information too, off your back.

Not that the partner companies are all bad seeds, but that could change. Partner companies can keep your personal private information forever – even when the company changes hands, or ceases to function.

Think a disgruntled employee can cause a lot of harm? What about a disgruntled employee with yours and millions of other Facebook users addresses, phone numbers, email accounts, and other personal information.

And it isn’t just those partner companies you have to worry about, Facebook isn’t exactly harmless either.

Last year, Stoddart accused Facebook of breaching Canadian privacy laws, by holding onto personal information from deactivated accounts. After a lengthy Canadian government probe, Stoddart’s office made a series of recommendations last July, to assist the American-based company in complying with Canadian privacy laws.

Almost a year later, Facebook has not complied fully with Canadian privacy laws. The recent changes only further complicate the issue, showing that profits over privacy, it is profits that win out at Facebook.

There hasn’t been any word yet from American legislators on Facebook’s privacy rules, and until then, it is up to you to take an active role in protecting your own personal information, or else “facebook” the consequences.

How To Protect Yourself

The best way is simply NOT to click on any thumbs-up “like” icons outside of the Facebook domain( – if you are not on Facebook, no matter how tempting, don’t do it!

As a further way to protect yourself, you should make sure your privacy settings prohibit anyone but those you want (such as your friends) to know your likes and interests. To change these settings:

1. Log In
Login to your Facebook account as you normally do, with your email address and password.

2. Go to the Privacy Settings
From the top-right, click the Accounts drop-down menu, and then select Privacy.
The Privacy Settings options appear.

3. Go to the Privacy Settings for Profile Information
Click the very first item from the top – Profile Information.
The Privacy Settings – Profile Information page appears.

4. Change the Privacy Settings Affecting Likes and Interests
The second item from the top – Likes and Interests – displays who can access your personal profile information every time you click the thumbs-up “like” button, regardless of whether or not you are on the Facebook site. Change this setting to what you are comfortable with from the drop-down menu to the right. For interacting with your Facebook friends, select Only Friends, or for total security (and what we recommend), you can select Customize and limit this to just yourself, or to specific Facebook friends.

5. Save Your Changes and Return Home
Click on the Facebook logo at the top-left to save your changes and return you to your Facebook home page.

You should go through all your privacy settings, to make sure you aren’t sharing personal private information with anyone you don’t feel comfortable with.

Just follow step two above to get to the privacy settings, and go through every single menu, choice and option – if you can select it, and change it – do so.

The most secure options (where available) are None or No One But Me but these will seriously limit your ability to interact with anyone on Facebook. A happy middle-ground is selecting Only Friends which limits the information being shared to only those you are friends with on Facebook, but if the option is available, select Customize and specifically choose which friends or groups of friends to share the information with (this option isn’t available for all settings, though it should be).

There are also settings under the Accounts section, from the Accounts drop-down menu which also affect how your image and personal information are shared with Facebook advertisers and partners.

By limiting these settings to restrict access to your profile, you are going a long way towards protecting the most important asset you have – yourself.

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