Nearly 13 million U.S. Facebook users don’t use or aren’t aware of the site’s privacy controls, potentially exposing personal information widely beyond their network of Face book “friends,” according to Consumer Reports.
Its report on Facebook and privacy also shows that more than 4.8 million people have posted about where they planned to go on a certain day, a potential tip-off to burglars, while 4.7 million have “liked” a Facebook page about health conditions or treatments, details that insurers might use against them.
Facebook is the largest social network with more than 900 million users worldwide and 150 million users in the United States.
Facebook makes it easy for people to keep up with friends, family, and colleagues, discover great content, and connect to causes. To deliver this service, Facebook and other social networks collect enormous amounts of often highly sensitive information and distribute it widely and quickly.
This data collection has risks. About seven million households using Facebook said they had trouble last year, ranging from someone using their log-in without permission to being harassed or threatened – up 30 percent from the previous year, according to the Consumer Reports Annual State of the Net survey.
Unless an individual chooses his or her privacy settings carefully, a friend who runs an app could grant it access to the person’s information without his or her knowledge, including information that was set to “friends” only view. Only 37 percent of users say they’ve used the site’s privacy tools to customize how much information apps are allowed to see, according to the Consumer Reports survey.
What does Facebook know? Americans feed all kinds of personal details into Facebook’s vast database by posting status updates on their “wall,” updating their profile, “liking a page,” or using other Face book features. The numbers below show how many people engaged in each activity during the past 12 months, based on projections from the Consumer Reports State of the Net survey:
- 39.3 million identified a family member in a profile.
- 20.4 million included their birth date and year in their profile.
- 7.7 million “liked” a Face book page pertaining to a religious affiliation.
- 4.6 million discussed their love life on their wall.
- 2.6 million discussed their recreational use of alcohol on their wall.
- 2.3 million “liked” a page regarding sexual orientation.
While some privacy or security issues arise from poor choices Facebook users themselves make, other problems can stem from the ways the company collects data, how it manages and packages its privacy controls, and the fact that users’ data can wind up with people or companies with whom they didn’t intend to share.
Some users might be surprised to know that Facebook gets a report every time they visit a site with a “Like” button, regardless of whether or not they click on that button, have a Facebook account, or are even logged in.
Better protections. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, wants:
- A national privacy law that holds all companies to the same privacy standards and lets consumers tell companies not to track them online.
- Industry and privacy groups to meet to set clear rules for how personal data is collected and used, an Obama administration initiative.
- Consumers to sign a petition urging Facebook to improve privacy controls and address concerns about sharing practices.
- Facebook to fix a security lapse that permits users to set up weak passwords including some six-letter dictionary words and help users avoid inadvertently sharing status updates with the public, either by alerting them more prominently when they are about to do so or by changing the default audience for posts to the user’s preferred audience.
The report can be found in the June 2012 issue of Consumer Reports, available on newsstands on May 8, and online at www.ConsumerReports.org. The issue also features a report on online security and what consumers can do to protect themselves.
My next post will offer information on Consumer Report’s recommendations on “Nine Ways to Stay Protected” when you use Facebook.