Privacy Face-Off

The world of Facebook is a strange one. If it were a country, the social networking site would have the third largest population on the planet. Its close to 500 million users share 25 billion pieces of information each month. In Facebook’s world, your professional life and your personal life are often hard to separate. Your customers may log on to your gallery’s fan page to check out this week’s promotion, then switch over to your personal page to see what happened at your niece’s birthday party.

Public Versus Private

Many users got a wake-up call this spring when “Facebook” and “privacy concerns” became inseparable in the headlines. How private was the information they were sharing with their “friends”? Were they opening up a little too much of themselves to the Internet’s abyss? Apparently many thought they were. “How to delete Facebook” searches on Google have doubled since January.

And for good reason. Facebook has seen some pretty serious breaches in privacy. There was the snafu in early May that briefly enabled users to see their friends’ live chats. This happened around the same time elected officials were filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, stating that Facebook’s constantly changing privacy controls are too confusing. Back in December, Facebook changed its privacy defaults, making a lot of users’ information—status updates, lists of friends and interests—visible even to non-Facebook users.

Sounds like scary stuff. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg addressed the public outcry by pledging to simplify the settings, beginning with measures introduced in late May.

Easy Safeguards

There are some simple things you can do to make sure no sensitive information gets into the wrong hands:

Be mindful of the information you share. A recent Consumer Reports study found that the majority of people are posting risky information on social networks. Think twice before sharing your full birth date, children’s names or street address.

Take advantage of Facebook’s new security feature, aimed at keeping hackers away from your personal information by alerting you when your account is accessed by a computer you’ve never used. Log on to Facebook, and click the “Account” button on the top right. Select “Account Settings,” scroll down to “Account Security,” and click the link that says “Change.”

Check out a few of the independent tools that can help you control your Facebook privacy settings. There’s www.reclaimprivacy.org, which scans your privacy setting and alerts you if any have defaulted to public; www.untangle.com/saveface, which automatically sets all of your information to be viewed by “friends only;” and www.tineye.com, which makes sure an image posted on Facebook hasn’t found its way around the Web.

Most important, think before you post. Don’t air grievances about customers or coworkers on your personal page, and never post a picture that you wouldn’t want the president of your town’s small business association to see. Remember, nothing shared on the Internet can ever truly be deleted.

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