Privacy issues in social-networking sites

Kyle Covino is one of the bright young people that I very much appreciate at my local Staples store in Berlin Corners, Vt. He and his colleagues in the technology department have never failed to greet me warmly and offer immediate help in finding the right equipment for my needs – and I have watched them serve other customers with the same enthusiasm and competence. Today, Mr Covino tackles an interesting question, especially for people his age: just how much should one reveal about oneself on the increasingly popular social networking sites? The remainder of today's column is entirely his own, with minor edits.

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Age. Sex. Hometown. Religious and political views. These are some of the innocuous bits of information that Facebook asks for when you first sign up. It certainly seems harmless enough; what does it matter if your friends see it – they probably already know it anyway. But what if those Friends were your employers, how about the Friends of Friends, or even worse, Everyone?

With 500+ million users, Facebook is easily the king of social networking. It wasn't always like this; when it first started in 2004 the site was limited to just Harvard students. But what does this popularity mean for you? Look again at the seemingly harmless info I opened with. To your friends it's nothing new, but to advertisers, or worse yet, dishonest strangers, the data you willingly input are a gold mine. Facebook itself is a business venture; they are out to provide a service and make money. What better way to do that than to open what was once your private data to the public?

In December of 2009 Facebook made one of the most controversial changes to their privacy policy. No longer could you have a nearly invisible account allowing only those you wanted in by default. A user's profile was now publicly searchable with most of the information opened up for all to see by default. Facebook users were not pleased. Now, this isn't to say that Facebook pages couldn't be public before (they could), it was more about the loss of the choice. And that was the truly scary part.

Most Internet users expect their Web travel to be private and unrelated to their day-to-day lives. With social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, sharing your private thoughts or daily happenings with friends became commonplace. These sites cater particularly to the college-age crowd and you can imagine what kind of content would be shared. Pictures from last week's party may become evidence against you in your job hunt. This, of course, led to a new trend known as "Facebook Firing." Inappropriate actions or content posted on your personal time may have employers evaluating your fitness for current or potential employment.

Let's say that you are on top of your security settings and have your Facebook page well locked down. Your boss isn't your Friend and you haven't added or been tagged in any racy or embarrassing photos. Are you safe now? Not necessarily. Glitches in Facebook's own services may still share data, especially with Instant Personalization. Instant Personalization is intended to share some of your public Facebook data with certain Web sites to, you guessed it, personalize the experience.

With all these breaches of security, you'd be crazy to sign up for Facebook, right? To quote a friend of mine "If you were concerned about privacy you wouldn't be on Facebook." But being on Facebook doesn't mean you're not concerned with privacy. Rather, the issue is what information you provide and allow them to show. Recently many of my friends complained that Facebook revealed their cell-phone numbers. Shock and horror! Yes, but my friends supplied their cell-phone numbers to Facebook themselves. If they were so concerned about concealing those numbers, why did they fill in the fields in the first place?

Fortunately there is something you can do to limit what information that Facebook will share. Learn to love the Account button that's present throughout the site; this is the gateway to securing your profile. Specifically you'll want to look at the Account, Privacy, and Application Settings links, which provide the tools necessary to lock down your information and limit what others can see. Two good recent articles that provide details on how to use these settings properly are by Nilay Patel and by Whitson Gordon. Facebook may change your settings without warning you, so you should check them periodically.

So what does this mean for young people – and even older people? Should we quit social-networking sites – or even the entire Web – completely? Well, no, that would be an overreaction. Realistically, today's article is more of a wakeup call to be cautious how you use the social-networking sites and other parts of the Web that ask for personal information. It's not so anonymous: it's more public than you may think at the time you sign up for that nifty site. Remember that the Internet never forgets: not only are there public archives, but once your information has been copied by other people and saved on their hard drives, you really have lost control over it.

[MK adds: If you think you might be embarrassed by that picture of yourself with the beer bottle in an anatomically improbable location or that a potential employer might look askance as the profanity-filled attack on their products that you posted when you were 16, you might want to think a bit more carefully about exactly what you post in a public forum. And just do'’t even THINK of posting libelous attacks on other people, hate-filled political propaganda, and threats of violence on your personal pages.]

Think before you press ENTER.

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Kyle Covino studied English at Franklin Pierce University from 2001 to 2005. He currently earns a living repairing computers but continues to focus on his fiction writing.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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