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Facebook Privacy: What You Need to Know

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Even the most active of users on Facebook are confused about Facebook's privacy policies. One minute Mark Zuckerberg announces a "Like" button that publishers could place on their web pages, then the next minute we're seeing privacy rights groups like the ACLU calling out Facebook for their blatant disregard and self-serving policies regarding users' privacy. So what's the real deal? Here's what you need to know.

Privacy in social media has long been an issue, and Internet privacy even longer. A hot topic today are the issues revolving around Facebook privacy (just look at Mark Drummond's post "A Day in the Life of a Trending Topic" to see for yourself).

The Internet isn't a place where one can easily hide. Whether it's those drunken photos in Cabo on Spring Break, that complaint you posted about your boss to your friends, or pictures and information about your kids, nothing is safe anymore. And should that information get into the wrong hands it could cost you relationships, dignity, your job, your family's safety, and potentially your life. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Why Are Privacy Advocates Upset?

Facebook's addition of the "Like" feature, available for any site to place on their content, allows users with a Facebook profile to "Like" anything on the web, anywhere, and the ability to connect with the things they care about. Each user has instant personalization; favorite sites are automatically social if you're signed into your Facebook account. Information about your own interests (found in your basic profile) and the interests of your friends (found in their basic profiles) are shared and utilized to personalize your experience.

Within a matter of weeks, more than 50,000 sites added the "Like" button to their sites. Sounds fabulous right? Sounds scary, too.

Information Collected Regardless of User Action

You don't have to click the "Like" button for any your information to be collected. The way the social plug-in works is Facebook collects the address of the web site/page being visited and the Internet address of the visitor as soon as the page is loaded.

Facebook claims this information collected is anonymized after three months and isn't shared or sold to others. Privacy advocates are upset that this information is collected regardless of user action (i.e., clicking the "Like" button) without an easy opt-out solution.

In addition, critics are concerned that some of the interests located in your basic profile are required to be public, even if you have opted out.

It isn't just users who should be concerned about the data being collected. As a publisher, if you put the "Like" button on your site, "you're potentially selling out your users' privacy even if they never press that button," said Nicole Ozer of the ACLU of Northern California. The actions they take on your site are being used and not shared with you.

Did you know that even if you opt-out of sharing your information, it can still be shared by your friends to "partner sites"? This is the default setting. Users are required to take additional steps to completely opt-out: by blocking each individual partner application.

Critics are calling for the latter to be the default setting, due to the fact that your information is being shared, again, regardless of the user's action.

So Many Settings!

Initially users had 50 settings required to make information shared private. After much scrutiny and backlash, Facebook changed this feature on May 26 to reduce that number to 15.

Many users simply don't realize the privacy settings in place on social networking sites like Facebook either because they don't care, they're too lazy to actually implement the steps needed to take care of it, or because they just aren't privy to that information. I understand the laziness factor: Facebook made it so complicated to figure out how and what to do, that frankly even I had given up hope of having my information completely private.

Further Privacy Concerns

Currently, Facebook has no option for users to transmit data via encrypted HTTPS connections. User traffic is better protected through the use of HTTPS connections from malicious interception.

Many sites, including Google, have implemented the use of HTTPS connections to better protect their users. Facebook swears they are testing this feature out and hopes to roll out the option in a few months.

What Does Facebook Say?

Facebook maintains that more people are concerned with Facebook charging a fee sometime in the future (merely a rumor) than about privacy. They haven't seen any notable changes in user statistics due to users' privacy concerns. Facebook officials maintain this statement, even after the highly publicized "Quit Facebook Day."

Over the next few months Facebook hopes to continue simplifying the privacy settings they have in place, but maintains their stance that users really do want to share information, especially if they have control over it as reported on ClickZ.com.

Not sure what information you're sharing? Try out ReclaimPrivacy.org, a site providing an independent tool to help you scan your Facebook privacy settings and spell it out to you in simple language. And be sure to check out these seven tips on what you should stop doing on Facebook.

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