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Protecting Your Privacy with Facebook's New Privacy Settings

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Confused by all of Facebook's changes to its account settings? Not sure how best to keep your private life private and keep others from sharing your private information? Facebook Essentials author Michael Miller walks you through Facebook's new privacy settings and offers advice on how best to configure Facebook to keep your personal data from becoming too public.
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Facebook has gotten a lot of publicity in recent weeks—most of it bad—about the changes it has made to its privacy settings. Users are confused about what information is shared with others and unsure how to change Facebook's default privacy settings. Facebook hasn't helped things by releasing new privacy settings, new new privacy settings, and then new new new privacy settings. It's difficult to know what's what.

I experienced this confusion firsthand when I woke up one morning and discovered that Bruce Springsteen had left a message for me on Facebook. This was a bit of a surprise, as I'm not close pals with the Boss; heck, we're not even Facebook friends, and I never clicked to become a "fan" of his on the site. But now all of a sudden we were friends because Facebook all of a sudden decided to make me a "fan" of all of the musicians I said I liked in my profile—even if I really wasn't that kind of fan.

So if you're experiencing lots of new and unexpected "friends," notice all manner of Facebook login buttons on other websites you visit, are constantly asked if you want to share your Facebook information with other sites, or find that just about everyone you're acquainted with suddenly knows everything you're posting, then you, too, have become an unwitting beneficiary of Facebook's new (new new) privacy settings—which, unless you make some changes, open up your personal information for a lot of folks to see.

What's New with Facebook Privacy?

Facebook has never been a paragon of privacy. It's a social network, after all, and being social means sharing of oneself. In Facebook's case, it also means sharing all your personal information by default—which is certainly one way to network with others.

You see, Facebook thinks it can better connect users with one another, and build a stronger community, by making public all of a user's likes and dislikes. That might make sense in the abstract; the more we know about each other, the more likely we are to find people to interact with. But Facebook may be taking this openness a tad too far, essentially sharing all your information not only with other users but also with third-party applications and games and with other sites on the web.

Do you really want your personal information and Facebook status updates shared with hundreds of thousands of unrelated websites? I think most people would say no, but this is precisely what Facebook now does—unless you specify otherwise.

It's all part of Facebook's new Open Graph technology, which helps other sites link to the Facebook site. This can come in the form of a common sign-in (you log onto the other site using your Facebook ID and password), a Facebook "like" button on the other site, or the wholesale sharing of information about you between the two sites. In its quest for world domination, Facebook would like to be your gateway to the Internet, your home page on the web, or, let's be honest, your entire online operating system. Nice for them; less so for you or anyone who values their online privacy.

So, by default, Facebook tries to link all sorts of things together. It shares your Facebook data with partner websites, in the guise of helping those sites "personalize" their content for you. It shares your name with entertainers and companies you say you like to help them "connect" with you as a fan. And it shares your personal information and the posts you make to everyone on the Facebook site, even if you'd rather keep that information private.

Fortunately, you can configure Facebook to be much less public than it is by default. While this originally was somewhat difficult to do (Facebook didn't put all the settings in the same place—or make them easy to find, for that matter), Facebook has instituted yet another round of changes that make it a trifle easier to control which people and what applications can access your personal information.

Changing Facebook's Privacy Settings

As of June 1, 2010, Facebook created a single gateway screen for all its privacy settings. Not all settings are on this screen, but you can get to them from here.

To display the new Choose Your Privacy Settings screen, pull down the Account menu and select Privacy Settings. The screen you now see leads you to everything privacy-related on the site.

Figure 1 Facebook's new privacy settings gateway page

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