Over the past few months, Facebook has repeatedly found itself in hot water over its privacy protocols. But in the past week, the simmering resentment of many users burst into flames as the site's privacy protocol became even more complicated and it began linking user information to other sites. As many critics, including Daily Finance's Sam Gustin, have pointed out, Facebook now offers users over 50 choices on its security settings, allegedly making a security lockdown a painfully complicated and bizarre ordeal.
To find out how long it really takes to lock down one's Facebook profile, I decided to practice on my own account: for every security choice, I picked the most limiting setting, granting access to the narrowest possible group of people. It took me a long, arduous... two and a half minutes.
Even with the fifty-plus options that Facebook offers, it is actually pretty easy to put your account on total lockdown. Basically, all you need to do is open the "Privacy Settings" page, which is available through the "account" tab on the top right of your Facebook screen. The privacy page has six options; simply go to each page and choose how much access you want to grant the outside world. For total lockdown, you click on "Only Friends" whenever possible, and uncheck all other options. For a step-by-step explanation, check out our video or this article on The Business Insider.
Lockdown is easy, but if you're picky about how much access you want to give the world, you'll need to make a few difficult decisions, which will take a lot longer. For example, do you want everyone to know your birthday or do you only want it available to friends? Do you want everyone to be able to find you, or do you want to hide your listing? Do you want your entire family to see that picture of you guzzling tequila out of an old tennis shoe, or are you trying to keep your Spring break memories under wraps? Obviously, every one of these Solomonic choices is going to add time to the process.
While the Facebook privacy kerfuffle is all over the headlines right now, the real battle over Internet security extends far beyond the boundaries of Mr. Zuckerberg's little kingdom. Between e-mail, online commerce, social networking and the dozens of other ways we increasingly live our lives online, users are leaving hundreds of little traces of themselves all over the Internet. Meanwhile, some social aggregation sites are building a business model around gathering these little crumbs of information and displaying them for everyone to see.
The most disturbing website might be that of Spokeo, a company that positions itself as the successor to the phone book. Drawing information from phone books, business web sites, real estate listings and other publicly available sources, Spokeo has created in-depth contact and demographic profiles for millions of people, most of whom are unaware that their personal information is so easily available. Worse yet, Spokeo makes cyber-stalking a snap by opening these profiles to any users. Basic access to the site is free, and includes information like phone numbers, addresses and names of family members. While it is very easy to opt out of Spokeo, most people don't even know that it exists.
Then again, while Spokeo is disturbing, it offers a fraction of the information that's available on Facebook. Worse yet, even a locked-down profile can still be dangerous for a Facebook user. After all, while a secure Facebook profile can protect the user against strangers, it doesn't do much to defend against the dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of people that populate the average friends list.
For many Facebook members, the friends list is packed with random acquaintances, business associates and dozens of other people who barely count as acquaintances, much less friends. While these relationships can be enjoyable and fulfilling, it's still worth thinking about whether your best friend's college roommate's sister should really have access to your phone number, address and photo library.
The simplest solution is to heavily weed the friend's list, and doing so can greatly increase security. For even more control, many Facebook users develop specialized friends lists with variable access to sensitive information. Ultimately, though, the best solution is to carefully police the material that we put online. After all, as far as the Internet is concerned, Murphy's Law is always in effect: The most sensitive, embarrassing information will always find its way to the worst possible place.
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