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Privacy and Security on Facebook

As long as you exercise a little caution, there’s no reason the time you spend on Facebook should be any more perilous than a night on the town with friends. In both cases, it’s important to keep your wits about you, know the lay of the land, and think before you share too much info with people you don’t know very well.
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If you keep even half an eye on the news, you’re aware that privacy and security are critically important issues online—and that’s especially true in the social networking world. On sites like Facebook and MySpace, you can expose yourself to identity theft or fraud, just as with online shopping or banking sites. But on social networking sites, you also risk embarrassment or even censure if you wind up revealing the wrong details to the wrong people. Because you’re on Facebook to make connections and share information, it can be easy to cross the line into revealing too much information. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the line even is.

But don’t panic. As long as you exercise a little caution, there’s no reason the time you spend on Facebook should be any more perilous than a night on the town with friends. In both cases, it’s important to keep your wits about you, know the lay of the land, and think before you share too much info with people you don’t know very well.

In this chapter I’ll give you tips on how to balance self-expression with discretion, and I’ll explain the settings that Facebook provides to help you protect your privacy. But before we discuss Facebook’s privacy and security tools, let’s start by talking about the one you bring to the party yourself: your common sense.

An Ounce of Discretion Is Worth a Ton of Privacy Settings

Most people have many different sides—and they often choose to share those sides with different sets of people. You might talk music with one set of friends who tend to share your taste, and sports with another set of friends. You might avoid talking politics or religion with certain friends because you know you don’t see eye-to-eye with them.

But on Facebook, your friends will all see the same persona, consisting of whichever parts of your personality you use Facebook to express. Unless you use Facebook’s privacy settings to carefully separate your social groups, as we’ll discuss later in this chapter, friends with whom you don’t normally discuss politics will see your political comments. Friends who have different taste in music from you might discover your passionate love of Barry Manilow or Night Ranger.

Family and friends mix together on Facebook, too. You may have friends with whom you tend to engage in salty repartee that you’d never want your mom to overhear, but if she’s in your Facebook Friends list, she very well might.

There can also be academic and professional repercussions to how you express yourself on Facebook. Colleges have revoked admissions for students because of inappropriate postings on Facebook and MySpace, and employers increasingly check out the profiles of job candidates before making hiring decisions. Chatting about conditions at your current office can be a pitfall, too: If your boss is friends with anyone in the conversation, he or she could overhear the whole thing.

You shouldn’t necessarily let those considerations stifle your self-expression on Facebook, but when you post, it might help to imagine that you’re speaking to a large and diverse group at a party, rather than to a few intimate friends at your kitchen table.

It’s true that using Facebook’s privacy settings can provide some control over who sees what. But don’t let those settings lull you into a false sense of security. Words and images posted on the Internet have a way of reaching a wider audience than originally intended, and once they do, trying to recall or erase them is like trying to put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube. Or maybe more like trying to put Silly String back in the can.

The fact is, there’s only one way to absolutely guarantee that a photo, video, or snatch of ribald banter won’t be seen by more people than you want it to: Don’t post it online in the first place.

Facebook’s official privacy policy puts it this way: “Although we allow you to set privacy options that limit access to your pages, please be aware that no security measures are perfect or impenetrable. We cannot control the actions of other Users with whom you may choose to share your pages and information. Therefore, we cannot and do not guarantee that User Content you post on the Site will not be viewed by unauthorized persons.”

In other words, Facebook’s privacy and security tools can greatly reduce the chance that your information will be seen by the wrong eyes, but they can’t rule it out entirely. You may be a Yoda-like master of Facebook’s privacy settings (clicked all the checkboxes, you have!), but your info can still get away from you. For example, a trusted friend could easily fail to realize that a photo you posted was intended to be seen by only a very select audience, and might repost it somewhere else or e-mail it to a group of mutual friends—or people you don’t even know.

Remember also that law enforcement officials can get a court order to view Facebook profile information. And I’ve heard one anecdotal account of a job seeker being asked by her prospective employers to log into Facebook and then leave the room while they reviewed her profile. If your potential bosses get to look at your profile the way you see it, privacy controls become irrelevant.

The bottom line is if you’re truly worried that a bleary-eyed photo of you holding a plastic cup at a party could get you in trouble if it were seen by a prospective employer, an admissions board, or certain very conservative relatives, the safest approach is to simply not post it at all.

That doesn’t mean you should censor yourself excessively or squelch every playful impulse. But you should consider the risks and benefits, and find a reasonable middle ground for self-expression that’s within your personal comfort zone.

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