A refresher course on Facebook privacy controls

Patrick Marshall

With over a billion active users recording the minutiae of their activities, purchases, travel plans, and other personal information, Facebook is a potential treasure trove for hackers and marketers trolling for data.

Facebook’s privacy settings seem to be a constantly moving target, so it’s important to review them from time to time. Here’s what you need to know.

The challenge of understanding Facebook privacy

Since its inception, Facebook has been — and often still is — criticized for its privacy controls. Well-publicized hacks of Facebook pages belonging to founder Mark Zuckerberg and the French president back in January 2011 didn’t help. For many users, Facebook privacy controls were either lacking or too difficult to wade through.

Fortunately, Facebook’s latest privacy-control enhancements are more accessible to the social site’s users. Unfortunately, many of the controls are disabled by default or set at their lowest threshold. And there’s still a bewildering array of privacy settings, scattered in different locations, that determine who can access information you’ve posted.

There’s one other frequently misunderstood fact about Facebook privacy: Because friends of your friends can see some of the things you post and tag — even if you’ve set more restrictive settings — you’re never sure just who is seeing what.

Review and change privacy via Privacy Shortcuts

Reviewing your Facebook privacy settings is important for understanding and controlling what personal information others — individuals and companies — can access on your page. The basic privacy settings are now easily accessed via the new Privacy Shortcuts tools, found under the lock icon to the right of your sign-in name.

Click the lock, and you’ll get a drop-down list of options, starting with one of the most basic settings: Who can see my stuff? Click its down-arrow, and the first configuration option is Who can see my future posts? (see Figure 1).

Privacy shortcuts

Figure 1. Facebook's Privacy Shortcuts gives you quick access to basic privacy settings.

The default (or current) setting is clearly displayed. If you want to change it, just click the down arrow and choose Public, Friends, Only Me, a custom setting, or other listed choices (see Figure 2).

Who can see future posts

Figure 2. Facebook's options for choosing who sees your future posts

Although it’s not well explained, selecting the “Custom” option (see Figure 3) lets you choose specific people or lists of people who won’t be able to see your postings. You’re also reminded that anyone tagged in your photos will be able to see those postings, regardless of the privacy settings you have in place.

Custom who-can-see options

Figure 3. The Custom Privacy tool gives finer control over who sees your future posts.

Curiously, if you want to change the audience for all of your old posts, you have to go to the Configuration menu, accessed via the gear icon next to the Private Shortcuts icon.

Managing your timeline posts, likes, tags, etc.

The next item under Who can see my stuff? is Where can I review all my posts and things I’m tagged in? Clicking this option takes you to the Activity Log page. (You can also access the log from the Privacy Settings option under the configuration menu.) Facebook’s activity log lets you scan your likes and postings as well as photos in which you have been tagged. In each case, you can see who is able to see these items by hovering over the people icon next to the item. Click the pencil icon, and your options depend upon the type of item.

Activity log

Figure 4. As you work with Facebook's privacy settings, popup dialog boxes can walk you through the log-review process.

For example, if the item is something you liked, clicking on the pencil icon will let you unlike it. For posts, the pencil lets you delete the posting. For photos in which you’re tagged, options include hiding it on your timeline or requesting that the author of the tag or the photo remove it (see Figure 5). If it’s a status update or a photo that has been posted to your wall by someone else, you can delete it, hide it on your timeline, or highlight it.

Review post settings

Figure 5. If you don't like being tagged in a photo, you can ask that the tag or photo be removed.

Viewing how your timeline looks to others

The last option under Who can see my stuff? is What do other people see on my timeline? Click it, and your timeline pops up with a black bar across the top and a control that states: This is what your timeline looks like to: — followed by “View as Public” or “View as Specific Person.” A Tip box also pops up, stating, “Remember: Things you hide from your timeline still appear in news feed, search, and other places on Facebook.” Confused? Me, too! One of the most daunting features of Facebook is trying to keep track of all the places your information can be seen.

Controlling who can send you messages

The next section of the Privacy Shortcuts menu — Who can contact me — has two options. The first — Whose messages do I want filtered into my Inbox — offers Basic Filtering (Mostly your friends and people you may know) and Strict Filtering (Mostly just friends — you may miss messages from other people you know). The use of the terms “mostly” and “may” leave me wondering who is really in charge here.

Next, you can choose whether to receive friend requests from any Facebook user or only from friends of friends, as shown in Figure 6.

Friend request control

Figure 6. Facebook's friend-request control

Locking down access to your previous posts

The third item on the Privacy Shortcuts menu, How do I stop someone from bothering me?, is simply a quick way to unfriend someone. Just enter the individual’s name or e-mail address, and that person can no longer initiate conversations with you or see your timeline.

Clicking See More Settings at the bottom of Privacy Shortcuts takes you to the Privacy Settings and Tools screen, which is also accessible by clicking on the configuration (gear) icon next to the Privacy Shortcuts lock.

You’ll find a lot of repetition here. As with Privacy Shortcuts, you can specify who can see your future posts, and you can access the Activity Log. However, an additional option — Limit Past Posts — restricts who can see previous posts. It changes posts shared with the public or friends of friends to just friends — and to people who are tagged plus their friends. (Gee, it’s still kind of hard to know who is actually open to seeing what, isn’t it?)

The next item specifies who can look you up using your e-mail address or phone number — everyone, friends of friends, or just friends — and whether or not search engines can link to your timeline (see Figure 7).

Who-can-search-you control

Figure 7. The Who can look me up? control also lets you control search-engine access to your Facebook timeline.

Just under the Privacy option in the left-hand navigation panel, you’ll find an entry for Timeline and Tagging. This screen, too, repeats much of the controls available in the Privacy Shortcuts. You can, for example, specify who can view your posts. But there are some additional tools; for example, the Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline option. Although that sounds useful, it won’t prevent your tagged image from appearing on other people’s timelines.

At the bottom of the Timelines and Tagging Settings page, you’ll find three options for configuring how tags are handled. With the first option, you can opt to review and approve or reject tags others want to add to posts in your timeline. The second option determines who else can see a post you’re tagged in. (This one seems really confusing.) The options are the usual Friends, Only Me, and Custom.

The final setting in Timelines and Tagging Settings (shown in Figure 8) is Who sees tag suggestions when photos that look like you are uploaded? The only two options are you or your friends. (Does your head hurt now? Mine does.)

Timeline and Tag controls

Figure 8. Facebook's Timeline and Tagging Settings

The last privacy-settings category (in the left-hand navigation panel below Timeline and Tagging) is Blocking. The first blocking option — Restricted List — lets you create a list of friends who can see only those posts you make public. There’s also a note that “Facebook does not notify your friends when you add them to your Restricted list.” This might be a good option for business contacts and others with whom you’re only sorta friends.

There are four other blocking options, shown in Figure 9. For each, you just type in the names of those you want blocked. You can block users, application invitations, event invitations, and applications. The last item will prevent applications from contacting you or collecting nonpublic information. Unfortunately, the onus is on you to manage the lists.

(Of course, the best Facebook privacy policy is to refrain from downloading and using Facebook applications in the first place.)

Blocking controls

Figure 9. The blocking controls include the ability to restrict applications from using your personal information.

Finally, it’s worth noting that, although Facebook has added many privacy controls and simplified some existing ones, it has recently removed a major option: users can no longer hide themselves from Facebook searches. Small wonder some Facebook users have decided to unfriend themselves from the world’s largest social network.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2013-01-17:

Patrick Marshall

About Patrick Marshall

Patrick Marshall is a regular technology columnist for The Seattle Times. He has also written for Government Computer News, InfoWorld, PC World, the Congressional Quarterly, and other publications.