Sunday, June 23, 2013

Suggestion: Just turn off your Facebook privacy settings

That's right, the title of this post is not a typo.  You should strongly consider disabling all of your Facebook privacy settings; by that I mean making them the most publicly visible (to the entire internet).  To see why, read on.

I've been an information technology consultant for about 15 years.  Before that, I started doing telecommunication when modems were devices you set a telephone handset into (If you haven't, see Wargames, the movie).  I have seen the birth of the internet, social networking, and followed the commercialization of both.

As of a few months ago, I'm also a new father. Since then, I've had several people issue a little "friendly derision" for not having posted more on Facebook about my new child.  It is not that I don't consider my friends important enough to hear about the latest diaper bomb, or see the cutest new baby photo.  I actually have several very good reasons for this:

  1. That some people don't need a Facebook news feed full of baby pictures just because they are friends with me, but okay, that's my own opinion.
  2. The notion that my child deserves the opportunity to grow up privately, and is too young to advocate for himself.
  3. The awareness that if I was going to share info and photos about my kid, Facebook is a bad place to do it.  
That last point comes from a caveat that is relevant to everyone.  When you post content to Facebook, for all intents and purposes, you no longer control that content.  Facebook's data usage policy is written very loosely, and basically allows them to do whatever they want with information you share.  

"But the Facebook privacy controls allow me to control what information people see!"

Facebook has provided several privacy controls, which give the user the idea that they are in control of what people see about them on Facebook.  However, if you rely on these, you are putting yourself at risk.  There are several problems with trusting this as a method of privacy control:

  • The privacy controls are frequently changed by Facebook, with the new set of controls behaving in a different way than you last understood them to.
  • Facebook privacy settings don't necessarily work the way you expect them to.  If you are a Facebook user, at some point you probably have come across someone's profile who was not your friend, and were able to see a surprising amount of their private postings (perhaps even ALL of them?). There have been countless reviews and guides posted to help users understand their settings, such as this "always up-to-date" guide on Gizmodo, but let's face it: it's a challenge, and it keeps getting harder.
  • What's worse, even if you do understand them, Facebook privacy settings are a moving target.  When the controls are modified, or new controls are introduced, they typically start out using the most public of settings, meaning you have to "opt-in" to privacy on Facebook.  Also, the privacy of each posting can be set by you per post, but as the "Always up-to-date guide to Facebook Privacy settings points out, the post privacy setting does not revert back to your more private default after you make a single posting public. This means that literally one day, without your necessarily being aware of it, Facebook postings containing sensitive information could be visible to more people than you think, and possibly the whole world.  
Yes, the whole world.  Many Facebook users are not aware that a Facebook account is not required to see a public Facebook posting (Facebook makes sure you remain logged in as much as possible, so that it's convenient for you to access Facebook, and so that information such as the sites you visit can be tracked).  

A Losing Battle

The Facebook using community has seemingly won temporary victories in the past, when Facebook policy changes have been challenged by a public outcry.  However, eventually Facebook will try again.  It's a losing battle . Why?  Because it is in Facebook's best interest to make your content as public as possible. The more stuff you share, the more people will look, and the more ads they can be shown.  At the end of the day, privacy controls just can't be trusted.  They are essentially meaningless.

"I've got nothing to hide, my life is too boring."

If you don't consider the need for your own privacy enough of a concern to regulate what you post, consider that this also goes for information you share about your friends, and, information they share about you.  The data usage policy explicitly states "your friends and others may share information about you".  Meaning, if someone shares a photo of you at the bar last night, and that photo ends up being seen by someone you didn't want to, there is nothing you can do about it.

Therefore, for the benefit of yourself and your (real-life) friends, if you insist on using Facebook, the best policy is to expect the worst. Use it as you would a public blog.  Trust only that what you post could be visible to anyone in the world, and fool yourself no longer.  In fact, I implore you to just go ahead and turn all of the privacy controls off, as that is essentially what could end up happening whether you asked for it, know it, or not.  Then, don't post anything you wouldn't want your mother to read (or anyone else).

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