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An open book

Lifestyle | With policy changes, Facebook brings users' information before many more eyes

Issue: "Gulf toil," June 5, 2010

Facebook is at it again-and internet privacy advocates aren't happy. Two recent changes make available to "everyone" information that the social networking giant previously considered private. According to the site, "Publicly available information includes your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, friend list, and pages."

But the definition of pages has changed. Previously businesses, movies, bands, magazines (WORLD has one), retail stores, and nonprofit groups established fan pages, sometimes offering discounts to people who became fans. You could set privacy controls so only your friends or even subsets of your friends could see those pages.

Not any more. Say when you signed up for FB you listed five favorite movies, six favorite books, and two hobbies. Maybe you also said you graduated from Michigan State and became a fan of some sports teams and a couple of bands. Several friends asked you to become a fan of their small business or organization. And Dunkin' Donuts offered a discount if you became a fan.

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Now all those fan pages and interests have been converted to the new "community" and "connections" pages. All of them are now public. You might limit who sees them on your profile, but all of your public information is available through those public pages.

But that's not all. Last month FB revealed to developers a plug-in that extends to other websites (The Washington Post and CNN, for example) FB's social aspects. Those who visit plug-in equipped websites while still being logged into FB carry their FB public information with them.

This has worrisome privacy implications, an article in the (London) Times explained, because "in effect, the 'identity' of Facebook users will follow them where ever they roam on the Internet, as long as they are already logged in to Facebook."

Some information will only be activated, though, if you click a "like" icon. "Personalized" websites, including Yelp, Pandora, and Microsoft Docs, will have instant access to your information in order to customize your experience.

FB's help pages are notoriously difficult to understand. They convey a reassuring message that FB is merely trying to expand the social web-but critics claim that the website is trying to cash in on the mountain of data it now possesses.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently published a timeline showing the evolution of FB's privacy policy from its inception in 2005. At that time the site pledged, "No personal information that you submit to The facebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings." In April 2010, FB's policy had shifted: "When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information about you. The term General Information includes your and your friends' names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting." (The EFF's "Handy Facebook-to­English Translator" explains the new Facebook terminology and how to control some features.)

What to do? One simple solution is to log on to FB only for short periods of use, and then be sure to log out. Otherwise, FB users have the frustrating job of making sure their privacy settings reflect their desires-and that's hard when FB policy changes so often.

Here are other suggestions: Check your privacy settings (listed under the "Account" tab). Check each setting, including "Friends, Tags, and Connections" and "Applications." To see how your profile appears to non-friends, click on "preview my profile" at the top of the Friends, Tags, and Connections privacy page. It is possible that Facebook will change things again before this article goes to press. That means you need to stay vigilant. Some people are glad to share everything, but for those of us who aren't: Pay attention.

Copied & stored

Here's another threat to privacy: information stored on digital copiers manufactured since 2002. Most businesses aren't aware the copiers have hard drives that carry an image of every copied document. When they sell the machines, they transfer sensitive information as well. A CBS reporter purchased four used machines that contained Social Security numbers, addresses, and even health reports. One of the machines had come from the sex crimes division of the Buffalo police department.
Email: solasky@worldmag.com

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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