by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
There’s an old saying, “Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody ever seems to do anything about it.” The same could be said about Facebook privacy but unlike the weather, there actually are things you can do to control how Facebook uses your information and who it’s shared with.
I’m not saying you’ll ever have 100% privacy on Facebook or any other commercial site or app that makes its money from targeted advertising, nor am I taking them off the hook for privacy missteps that have gotten them into trouble with regulators. But there are tools you can use to limit what they collect and who can see it.
The best place to start is with a privacy checkup at facebook.com/privacy/checkup. Here you’ll be able to see who can see what you share, how people can find you on Facebook, how to keep your account secure and configure data settings and ad preferences.
The “who” section lets you decide who can see your phone number, email address, birthday, year of birth, hometown, and relationship status. Your choices are public (anyone on or off Facebook), friends on Facebook, friends except acquaintances, just yourself, acquaintances or “custom.” Custom gives you a great deal of control, allowing you to specify specific people or groups of people. There’s even a “don’t share with” option that lets you share with everyone except specific people. You can also control who can see your work and education history or you can decide to not include that in your profile.
You can also decide on the default audience for your posts. Most people select “friends” as their default audience but you can change that for all of your posts or for a specific post by clicking on the setting in a post as you’re creating it. A couple of words of caution. If you change the audience for a post, that changes your default so the next post you send will be that new audience setting. Be sure to review this when you post to make sure you’re only sending to the people you want to see your post.
Also be aware that controlling who can see your information doesn’t remove that information from Facebook’s servers. If you’re unfortunate enough to become a target in a criminal case or a lawsuit, there is the possibility that Meta (Facebook’s parent company) could be required to disclose that information if presented with a legally binding order.
You also have the option to block anyone so that they will no longer see things you post or be able to invite you to events or groups, start a conversation with you or add you as a friend. You can always review your block list and unblock anyone if you change your mind.
You’ve undoubtedly been on sites that have offered to let you “sign in with Facebook.” If you do that, the sites get access to some of your information. The “Your Data Settings” section of Privacy Checkup lets you remove any of those permissions.
Facebook also gives you the ability to control how advertisers can reach you. As part of its target ad strategy (which is more profitable for them than untargeted ads), Facebook can deliver ads based on such factors as relationship status, your employer, your job title and even where you went to school. But you have the option to turn off any or all of these targeting factors.
Privacy Settings and Tools
Another page to check out is “Facebook’s Privacy Settings and Tools,” which you can get to by clicking on your profile picture and selecting “Settings and Privacy.” There you’ll be able to review and make changes to many of your privacy settings, including your profile information (which can say a lot about you) and your off-Facebook activity that other businesses and organizations have shared with Facebook. I was quite surprised by the large number of interactions that other companies I deal with, including my bank, have shared with Facebook. Also, check out the Profile and Tagging page, which lets you control who can see posts you’re tagged in, among other things.
One very revealing tool you can access from Privacy Settings is the Activity Log which lists and lets you remove nearly every interaction you’ve done on the service as well as where others have tagged you. It may take quite a while to review your entire log but it’s worth a look.
There’s no way to eliminate advertising on Facebook since that’s how they make their money and are able to offer you a free account. But you do have some control over the types of ads you see. In the top left corner of the settings page (on the web), there is an “ad preferences”
The ad preferences section lets you review advertisers you’ve seen and interacted with, and hide them if you wish. Ad topics allows you to “see less” of specific topics such as “grocery delivery,” “personal development,” “fitness and wellness,” and many others.
Privacy settings for teens
If you’re a teen or have teenagers in your family who use Facebook or, more likely, Instagram, you might want to review the special privacy settings and defaults for teens.
Some of the default privacy settings are different for teenage users, including messaging restrictions that prevent teens from having unwanted interactions with adults. If you Google “Facebook Teen Privacy,” you’ll see a page that explains some special protections such as restrictions on what information businesses can use to target ads to teens (only age, gender and location) and who can see your content.
Teens can also invite their parents to supervise their Instagram accounts, which enables parents to help the teen manage their settings, screen time and other activities. Teens must consent to their parents being able to supervise them and can turn it off at any time.
Be secure and careful what you post
Finally, if you’re concerned about privacy on Facebook or any other social media service, be sure to have strong passwords and two-factor authentication, lock your device when you’re not using it and be careful what you post. No matter what privacy tools the service offers, it’s your responsibility to not share information that you don’t want others to see.
Having complete privacy is nearly impossible, especially if you have a smartphone, use credit cards, have an internet connection or travel by plane. But it helps to know how you can limit what information is out there about you and who can see it.