Ed's Blog

Consumer Reports magazine issues Facebook privacy tips

By Ed Mierzwinski
Consumer Program Director

The cover story of the June 2012 Consumer Reports is all about protecting your privacy on Facebook. Well worth a read. CR reports that millions of users tip off potential burglars by giving up their daily destinations and trips as status updates. Worse, millions more have never adjusted the complex privacy controls that can limit access to parts of your pages to family, some family only or even to your actual friends, and ensure that personal parts of your pages are not shown to all Facebook "friends" or, of course, to that great madding crowd known as "friends of friends." The story goes on to list the following results:

"Facebook collects more data than you may imagine. For example, did you know that Facebook gets a report every time you visit a site with a Facebook “Like” button, even if you never click the button, are not a Facebook user, or are not logged in?

Your data is shared more widely than you may wish. Even if you have restricted your information to be seen by friends only, a friend who is using a Facebook app could allow your data to be transferred to a third party without your knowledge.

Legal protections are spotty. U.S. online privacy laws are weaker than those of Europe and much of the world, so you have few federal rights to see and control most of the information that social networks collect about you.

And problems are on the rise. Eleven percent of households using Facebook said they had trouble last year, ranging from someone using their log-in without permission to being harassed or threatened. That projects to 7 million households—30 percent more than last year."

The story provides a link to a tips page with a video that explains how to work the sometimes murky privacy controls at Facebook.

Meanwhile, a few of Facebook's paid friends over at Forbes and something called netfamilynews are trying to dismiss this important story. Since Facebook has an IPO coming up, I guess they called out all their supporters to attack the CR story, but there doesn't seem to be any there there.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am an unpaid elected member of the Consumer Reports board of directors. U.S. PIRG concurs with the recommendations of the CR special report on Facebook privacy. U.S. PIRG also works with CR's advocacy arm, ConsumersUnion.org, and many other consumer, privacy and civil liberties groups, on legislative and regulatory solutions to privacy problems, including a need to provide baseline privacy controls on the Internet. The core basic privacy protection, offered in different ways by different browsers but opposed by digital advertisers, is to make a simple-to-use "do not track" feature ubiquitous on the web.

As soon as it is posted, I will update with a link to the video of a special privacy event to discuss the cover story that Consumer Reports held at NYU Thursday night. It featured a keynote by my CR board colleague Craig Newmark of craigslist as well as a feisty panel of privacy experts moderated by Bob Sullivan of the Redtape Chronicles. Panelists included my longtime colleague Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, who provided counterpoint to everything that the Direct Marketing Association's representative said. Jeff and I have a paper on social networking and credit decision-making to be released at a symposium at Suffolk Law School in early June.

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