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June 6, 2010

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How To Lock Down Facebook Privacy Settings

Is "Facebook Security" an Oxymoron?

Scoroncocolo, Scoroncocolo Tech Pages, ScarewareThe Malware Mafia is all over Facebook and they have some files they would love to share with you.

In January of 2009 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook blog post, "If Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated in the world, just ahead of Japan, Russia, and Nigeria." But that was well over a year ago when Facebook had a mere 150 million users. Today Facebook has well over 400 million users making it the third most populous "country" on earth behind only the People's Republic of China and India.


Facebook Is A Two-way Mirror

According to Google's calculations, Facebook is far and away the world's most visited Website. In April of 2010, Facebook had 540 million visitors log onto its site and those visitors clicked on 570 billion pages! Yahoo was the number two most visited domain with 490 million visits and 70 billion page clicks.

Facebook's huge size alone makes it an inviting target for the Malware Mafia, identity thieves and other nefarious hackers. And Facebook is all about sharing and sharing files (i.e. pictures, music, video and other files) over the Internet is something that needs to be done with a degree of caution to say the least. What makes Facebook even more potentially dangerous is that when you set up an account on Facebook, all of your security setting are automatically set to the most open (read: vulnerable) settings by default. Therefore it's up to you to secure your Facebook account. (Much more about that latter.) Facebook has been until very recently not the least bit concerned about your security. They were, and I believe still are, single-mindedly driven to acquire more members and violating your security to attain those ends was not and still is not a concern. Plus Facebook has a bad track record of launching new features and automatically opting everybody in at the most unsecured level.

Until very recently the term "Facebook security" was a classic oxymoron. It pretty much still is even though a few days ago (May 25, 2010) Mr. Zuckerberg's company began rolling out a somewhat simplified version of it's still somewhat perplexing privacy settings. Toward the end of this post I'll pass along what I've managed to find out about these brand new privacy settings. Hopefully that will help you make the information you share on Facebook less accessible to the 400 million Facebook users you really don't want to be sharing with. Because believe me, the Malware Mafia is all over Facebook and they have some files they would love to share with you.

It Almost Took An Act Of Congress

It almost took an act of congress to convince the executives at Facebook that they had overstepped the boundary of privacy, security and anonymity that Internet users have come to regard as inalienable rights. On April 27, 2010 Senator Charles Schumer of New York and several other Democratic Senators held a press conference during which they took exception to Facebook's new "Instant Personalization" service.

What is Instant Personalization? You may not even be aware that, unless you have delved into your privacy options on Facebook and explicitly opted out, Facebook is now sharing all of your personal information with Microsoft's, the restaurant rating site and the music site Pandora. And they have plans to expand this so-called "service". I'm sure that Facebook is hoping that its users will consider this a convenience. And maybe these sites are trustworthy but the problem is the "slippery slope" that Facebook is going down. Where will this end? Will their insatiable appetite for dominance lead them to ally themselves with sites that will misuse our information for monitory gain? Of course that will happen.

But this slippery slop that Facebook is embarking on with Instant Personalization is something that Facebook very quickly made optional very soon after the Senatorial press conference. In fact it was less than a month after Senator Schumer's press conference that Facebook announced that it had greatly simplified its security settings. It almost took an act of congress, but finally it is somewhat easier than it once was to maximize your privacy settings on Facebook.


Securing Your Privacy on Facebook

On May 12th of this year Nick Bilton of the New York Times wrote in an article about Facebook in which he stated that "To opt out of full disclosure of most information, it is necessary to click through more than 50 privacy buttons, which then require choosing among a total of more than 170 options." Most people in the security tech blogging community believe that it was this article in the New York Times along with Sen. Schumer's press conference that prompted Facebook to begin rolling out a somewhat simpler version of its security settings on May 25 of this year. Even so, Facebook has managed to continue to make changing your settings a rather daunting and thought provoking as well as a somewhat time consuming affair on your part in hopes that you will leave all of your settings set to their default positions. And a vast majority of people will. But you're a security conscientious, tech savvy person or you wouldn't be reading this article, so let's delve into securing your privacy on Facebook.

Facebook has, for the most part, three security settings. You can choose to share your personal information with Friends, Friends of Friends, which of course includes Friends as well, and Everyone which means all of your friends plus all of their friends plus 400 million other people you don't know! Unless you have manually taken it upon yourself to modify your security settings in Facebook you are granting access to every piece of information you have posted on Facebook and all of the information your friends and their friends have posted about you and all of the information that Facebook has managed to garner about you and all the information about you that has been shared without your knowledge with the authors of the Apps you and your friends or friends of your friends might use on Facebook. And, unless you manually opt out, Facebook is now sharing your information with other Websites like Pandora, Micorsoft's and Yep and has plans to turn over your personal information to other sites in the near future. Scary huh? O.K. let's fix all that or at least most of it.

Log into your account on Facebook and click on Account in the upper right-hand corner of the page. In the drop-down box that appears from that action click Privacy Settings. You should now be looking at a page that looks like the graphic above this text box.

There are four areas on this page in which you can make security changes. These are Basic Directory Information, Sharing on Facebook, Applications and Websites and Block Lists.

In the Basic Directory Information portion of the page click on View settings. This will take you to a page that looks very similar to the graphic just below this text box. The Basic Directory Settings control how your friends, enemies, co-workers, government agents, law enforcement agencies and everyone else including the Malware Mafia might find you on Facebook. The truly paranoid and/or truly guilty might want to consider locking all of these options down to the Friends Only setting except for Send me friend requests, which must be Friends of Friends or Everyone. the rest of us might want to liberalize these settings somewhat, but leaving every option set to Everone is definitely not a good idea. When you're finished modifying your privacy settings in Basic Directory Information, click the Back to Privacy button at the top left of the page. This will send you back to the page that looks like the picture at the top of this text box.

Now you'll want to set your Sharing on Facebook settings. For the truly paranoid/guilty crowd, click on the Friends Only tab, which will make the all available settings switch to Friends Only after you click the Apply These Settings confirmation button. Most of us will want to customize the settings. To customize, click on Customize settings. This brings up a new page, where the setting for each element of your profile can be adjusted individually.

When you're through with that, click the back button in your browser to return to the customization page, and finish working on that. When finished with Sharing on Facebook settings, click Back to Privacy to return the main page.

Scroll down to the next text box >More About Securing Your Privacy on Facebook to learn more about editing your privacy settings on Facebook.


More About Securing Your Privacy on Facebook

Now you'll want to click on "Edit your settings" under Applications and Websites, in the lower left region of the Privacy page. This will take you to a page that looks similar to the graphic just below this text box.

At the top of this page you can turn off any games or applications your friends my be spamming you with. Next, you can decide who can see your recent activity on their games and applications dashboards. You can click the options button and then click Coustomize. Now you have the option of choosing specific people or Only Me. Next, you'll want to control what information is available to applications and websites when your friends use them. So click Edit Settings next to Info accessible through your friends and start un-checking most if not all the little boxes.

If you look at the picture bellow, you'll see that the next setting is called Instant Personalization. This is the Facebook data sharing initiative that got the attention of Sen. Schumer that I alluded to earlier. Facebook says that enabling Instant Personalization "lets you see relevant information about your friends the moment you arrive on select partner websites". If you click Edit Settings next to Instant Personalization you will be taken to a page that will allow you to opt out of this new, and to me spooky, Facebook "feature".

The last setting on Applications and Websites is Public Search. When you click to edit your settings here, you will be taken to a page that will allow you to hide your Facebook account from search engines like Google and Bing. If you choose to continue to allow Facebook to make your account available to search engines, click on the see preview link that's just above Enable Public Search. Clicking this link will show you what on your Facebook account the search engines have access to.

Once you're comfortable with the choices you've made on the Applications and Websites page, click Back to Privacy to return to the main privacy page - the one that looks like the first graphic on this page. Here you can click "edit your lists" under Block List and stop specific people from interacting with your Facebook account. Once you've done that you are almost finished. But first you need to look at one more page.

Click the Accounts tab in the top right-hand corner of the page and then click Account Settings. On the page that appears from this action, click the Facebook Ads tab and edit the box that reads "Allow ads on platform pages to show my information to...". Next, click the Notifications tab and edit all those settings. When you're done with all that, click the Settings tab to get back to the Settings page and click on Account Security. Here Facebook says "To help keep your Facebook account as safe as possible, we can notify you when your account is accessed from a computer or mobile device that you haven't used before". You probably want to enable this.

You'll notice that the last option on this page is Deactivate Account. May 31, 2010 was the first annual Quit Facebook Day and apparently 34,687 people did. If you decide not to deactivate your account, you might want to do one last thing before you're finished securing your privacy on Facebook and that is if you have your birthday listed at least take down the year you were born. Your complete date of birth is sensitive information.


Securing Your Privacy on Facebook -The Bottom Line

If you've read through this post and decided, despite all I've written, to leave you Facebook settings at their default positions, well that's your call. But let me introduce you to the 26 year old boy-wonder Mark Zuckerberg the CEO of Facebook who will be making all these important privacy decisions for you should you choose not to make them for yourself.

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