Facebook Privacy Concerns Don't Stop Risky Behavior on Social Networks

By Brian Prince  |  Posted 2010-05-04

Facebook Privacy Concerns Don't Stop Risky Behavior on Social Networks

With calls for tighter privacy controls on the Web getting louder and louder, new research shows many users are still forgoing privacy controls and exposing themselves to risk on social networks.

According to a survey of 2,000 American households by Consumer Reports, 52 percent of adults using sites such as Facebook and MySpace engage in risky behavior, posting information that can be used against them to commit cyber-crime. This information runs the gamut from full birth dates (38 percent) to home addresses and the details of whether or not the person is home, eight percent and three percent, respectively.

"Many people use social networking sites to share personal information and photos with their friends quickly and easily," said Jeff Fox, technology editor for Consumer Reports, in a statement. "However there are serious risks involved, which can be lessened by using privacy controls offered by the sites."

As one of the most popular social networking sites on the Web, Facebook has been at the center of the privacy debate, and has garnered criticism in the past several months regarding changes to its controls and its decisions to share user information with third-party sites.

Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray said Facebook's approach to privacy needs to continue to be more transparent in order to find middle-ground between its business needs and the concerns being voiced by politicians the public.

"Everyone seems to have their own ideas about privacy, but ultimately this is less about privacy than it is control," Ray said. "Consumers can and will legally give up their right to privacy in exchange for free access to the social sites and services they've come to love.  The issue isn't that people expect privacy-how can someone who posts where they are and what they think at every moment of the day-but that they expect to control who accesses their data and under what circumstances."

But for all the criticism Facebook has taken, the survey found many users are not taking full advantage of the controls in place. For example, while 73 percent only share Facebook content with -friends', just 42 percent of adult users reported customizing settings to control who can see information. Eighteen percent customize settings to control who can find their page through a search.

Facebook users were generally more likely to post potentially risky information than users of other social networks. While 38 percent of social network users overall posted their full birth date, 42 percent of Facebook users did so. Facebook users were also more likely to post information about work (17 percent versus 16 percent) and their personal cell phone numbers (seven percent versus six percent) than others.

In addition, Facebook users were slightly less likely to post their home address (seven percent versus eight percent), and equally as likely to indicate when they were away from home (four percent).

On Twitter, just 27 percent said they check out pages of new followers they don't know personally, and 24 percent said they block new -followers' they don't know. Some 34 percent of users have chosen to only make their tweets available to followers.

The good news is that many of those who experienced identity theft and knew where their information was stolen don't believe it was due to their online activity. Just 20 percent said their information was taken from Web-related activity.

How to Protect Your Privacy

In addition to the survey, Consumer Reports published a list of tips and considerations for users concerned about privacy.

1.       Using a weak password.  Avoid simple names or words that can be found in a dictionary, even with numbers tacked on the end.  Instead, mix upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and symbols.  A password should have at least eight characters.  One good technique is to insert numbers or symbols in the middle of the word.

2.       Listing a full birth date.  Listing a full birth date - month, day and year - makes a user an easy  target for identity thieves, who can use it to obtain more personal information and potentially gain access to bank and credit card accounts.  Choose to show only the month and day or no birthday at all.

3.       Overlooking useful privacy controls.  Facebook users can limit access for almost everything that is posted on a profile from photos to family information.  Consider leaving out contact info, such as phone number and address.

4.       Posting a child's name in a caption.  Don't use a child's name in photo tags or captions.  If someone else does, delete it by clicking Remove Tag.  If a child isn't on Facebook and someone includes his or her name in a caption, ask that person to remove the name.

5.       Mentioning being away from home. Three percent of Facebook users surveyed said they had posted this information on their page. Doing so is like putting a "no one's home" sign on the door.  Be vague about the dates of any vacations.

6.        Being found by a search engine.  To help prevent strangers from accessing a profile, go to the Search section of Facebook's privacy controls and select Only Friends for Facebook search results.  Be sure the box for Public Search isn't checked.

7.       Permitting youngsters to use Facebook unsupervised.  Facebook limits its members to ages 13 and older, but children younger than that do use it.  If there's a young child or teenager in the household who uses Facebook, an adult in the same household should become one of their online friends and use their email as the contact for the account in order to receive notification and monitor activity.  


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