Report: Facebook Users Negligent About Privacy

Despite efforts by Facebook to raise awareness, nearly 13 million of the 183 million users of the social network in the U.S. and Canada either have not accessed or are not aware of its privacy controls, according to a new study by Consumer Reports.

However, the results should be taken with a grain of salt, as the magazine used a survey of 2,002 people 18 and older and called that total “nationally representative of Internet households.” Further, only 1,340 of those polled were identified as active Facebook users.

Plus, 13 million may sound like a large number at first glance, but that still means 93 percent of Facebook users in the U.S. and Canada have knowledge of Facebook’s privacy controls or have used them.

The Consumer Reports Annual State of the Net survey, which will run in the magazine’s June issue, also found that 7 million households reported issues such as log-ins being used without permission, harassment, and threats via Facebook in 2011, up 30 percent from 2010. However, according to the social network’s statistics, fewer than 0.5 percent of its users experience spam on any given day.

And only 37 percent of Facebook users have customized how much personal information is available to applications by using the social network’s privacy tools, Consumer Reports found.

A Facebook spokesperson responded to the report by saying:

We believe more than 900 million consumers have voluntarily decided to share and connect on Facebook because we provide them options and tools that place them in control of their information and experience. As part of our effort to empower and educate consumers, we always welcome constructive conversations about online privacy and safety.

Notable potentially dangerous privacy gaffes uncovered by Consumer Reports over the past 12 months include:

  • 39.3 million Facebook users identified a family member in their profiles
  • 20.4 million included their birth date and year in their profiles
  • 7.7 million liked a Facebook page pertaining to a religious affiliation
  • 4.6 million discussed their love life on their walls
  • 2.6 million discussed their recreational use of alcohol on their walls
  • 2.3 million liked a page regarding sexual orientation

However, these figures did not include data on who was able to view these postings — public, friends, close friends, or an even smaller group determined by the users.

Consumer Reports Technology Editor Jeff Fox said:

Facebook really is changing the way the world socially communicates and has become a successful service in part by leveraging copious amounts of personal data that can be spread far wider than its users might realize. Our investigation revealed some fascinating, and some disquieting trends — but ones always worth knowing for consumers who wish to keep their personal data under better control.

Consumer Reports added that Facebook Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly stressed that the social network runs tens of billions of privacy access checks daily, and Facebook has launched initiatives to give it users greater access to their personal data, and to monitor apps’ use of personal data, and a spokesperson for the company told the magazine:

We have a dedicated team that reviews apps using a risk-based approach to ensure that we address the biggest risks, rather than just doing a cursory review at the time an app is first launched.

Consumer Reports offered the following suggestions for Facebook users to protect their privacy:

  • Think before typing: Even if a user deletes his or her account (which takes Facebook about one month), some information can remain in Facebook’s computers for up to 90 days.
  • Regularly check Facebook exposure: Each month, users should check out how their page looks to others. Review individual privacy settings if necessary.
  • Protect basic information: Set the audience for profile items, such as town or employer. And users should remember: Sharing information with “friends of friends” could expose them to tens of thousands of people.
  • Know what can’t be protected: Each user’s name and profile picture are public. To protect one’s identity, they should not use a photo, or use one that doesn’t show their face.
  • “Un-public” the wall: Set the audience for all previous wall posts to just friends.
  • Turn off tag suggest: If users would rather not have Facebook automatically recognize their face in photos, they could disable that feature in their privacy settings. The information will be deleted.
  • Block apps and sites that snoop: Unless users intercede, friends can share personal information about them with apps. To block that, they should use controls to limit the info apps can see.
  • Keep wall posts from friends: Users don’t have to share every wall post with every friend. They can also keep certain people from viewing specific items in their profile.
  • When all else fails, deactivate: When a user deactivates their account, Facebook retains their profile data, but the account is made temporarily inaccessible. Deleting an account, on the other hand, makes it inaccessible forever.

Readers: How extensively have you used Facebook’s privacy controls?

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