Social media has come a long way in a short space of time. In a little over a decade, it’s grown from being the preserve of a relatively small group of online enthusiasts to one of the defining trends of 21st-century life. As the undisputed global leader in this field, Facebook now boasts nearly 1.7 billion daily active users.
Not only do we share personal and global news, photos and videos with each other every day on the site, we also log-in to our favorite third-party websites and apps via Facebook to shop, chat, play games and much more. In short, social media makes life more fun, more social, and more connected.
But at the same time, our digital lives have become more complicated. Sometimes we share without realizing the significance of the data we’re showing others — including strangers, trolls and maybe even fraudsters. Sometimes we sign-up for third-party apps/services that take advantage of small print agreements to sell our data on to others — possibly for uses we did not want. And often, the websites we visit independently of Facebook send data on our browsing behavior back to the social network without our knowledge.
Some of us view this kind of tracking as the price we pay for free internet services, and welcome the improved personalization it enables. But others may feel creeped out that their family’s every click and swipe is being silently monitored, logged, and shared.
Time for action
The good news is that Facebook has been listening (to some extent!) to regulators and consumers, and has started the new year by offering users more tools to shine a light on where and how their data is being used, and how they can protect their privacy. But we’re talking here about a platform that has been growing non-stop for the past 15 years. Complexity is everywhere, and it’s not always easy to find the tools you need to enhance your privacy on the site.
That’s why we’ve put together this short guide. It’ll teach you where your privacy is most at risk on Facebook, and what you can do to manage these risks, including an assist by Trend Micro’s own Privacy Scanner tool.
Why should I be worried?
Although social media offers much to enrich and improve our lives, there are multiple levels of privacy risk involved in using it. For many of us, the stakes have risen almost silently in the background over the past few years. We can split these into three basic areas:
Oversharing: At a very basic level Facebook allows you to share news, pictures, stories and more with the world. But would you want your boss, prospective employer, law enforcement, credit agencies and other users to see every little thing about you? Yes, they increasingly use Facebook as a source of intelligence gathering, so you may want to limit who can view your information to just those in your friendship network.
Among the most prodigious collectors and monetizers of our private data are cyber-criminals. A Facebook account is a trove of sensitive personal information: everything from email addresses and phone numbers to partners and political preferences. It could all be leveraged to commit identity fraud or craft convincing phishing emails which trick you into giving away even more details. Something as innocuous as a photo of a family pet could provide hackers with some useful intel for guessing your online passwords. Or what about a real-time update from the beach? It might be all an opportunistic burglar needs to raid your home.
Third-party apps and websites: One of the most controversial aspects of data collection and use on Facebook relates to partner sites and services. Often, users sign-up for these apps without being fully aware of how their data will be used, or even what profile data the app may be gaining permission to harvest. It was data on 87 million Facebook users and their friends collected by a popular third-party personality test app that ended up being sold to Cambridge Analytica. It was then controversially used to target US voters ahead of the last Presidential election. Following a huge FTC fine, Facebook is now more rigorous in ensuring third-party developers comply with its privacy and data use policies. But some users may still balk at their private data being sold on to third parties.
Other Off-Facebook activity: Apps and websites that you log into with your Facebook ID technically count as “off-Facebook activity”: that is, stuff that happens outside of the social site. But there’s more. Did you know, for example, that Facebook collects data from a huge number of additional sites and apps that aren’t obviously connected to the platform? It uses code embedded on these sites to track what you do there, in order to make advertising on Facebook more targeted and personalized. So accurate and covert is this technology that it has given rise to a conspiracy theory that Facebook is somehow listening in to its users’ phone calls. It’s not. Users simply don’t know that, when they visit many sites and apps on the web, those same sites are secretly sending data back to Facebook, which then serves up relevant ads. Just bought Season One of your favorite show on a streaming app? You may get an ad for Season Two when you next visit your Facebook account. Some people may be fine with this trade-off: privacy for a more tailored user experience. But many others may not. It’s one thing monitoring what you bought off an e-commerce site, quite another to track who you swiped left on when you were last on a dating site.
How can I manage my privacy better? Fortunately, Facebook provides tools to help you to manage your privacy. Let’s go through some of them, from the newest to the oldest.
Off-Facebook Facebook has just released a way of checking which sites/apps track and send data on your web usage back to the social network, clearing your data sharing history with them, and disconnecting for the future.
- The Off-Facebook Activity tool can be reached here, or you can go to Settings > Your Facebook Information > Off-Facebook Activity.
- Click Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity and you’ll see a list of the (possibly many) apps and sites that have shared info about you with Facebook, including how they shared the data, and what kind of data it is.
- You can turn off this activity by going to Clear History. However, to prevent such data sharing in the future, you will need to go to Manage Future Activity and then toggle it Off.
There are some caveats. Disconnecting in this way will log you out of any apps/sites you used Facebook to log into. In addition, it will not stop Facebook from serving you advertising — you’ll get the same number of ads, except these won’t be as personalized as before. Facebook will also continue to receive information about your interactions on various sites, but this will be anonymized.
Particular apps, games and websites
You can also directly edit the privacy and settings of particular apps, games and websites you’ve logged into with your Facebook account.
- Go here, or click Settings, then Apps and Websites in the menu on the left.
- Click the name of the app, game, or website you want to update, or Search Apps and Websites with the Search tool on the upper right to find it.
- Once you’ve found the app, game, or website in question, update the information you’re sharing, who can see that you use it, and the notifications you receive.
- Click Save to save your changes.
Basic privacy settings
Facebook has also overhauled its most basic privacy settings. Its Privacy Checkup tool features four distinct sections.
- Click at the top of any page on Facebook and select Privacy Checkup.
- Then choose Who Can See What You Share to review and change who can view your profile info and posts, and block individuals if you wish.
- How to Keep Your Account Secure to choose a stronger password and turn on login alerts.
- How People Can Find You On Facebook enables you to choose who can look you up and send friend requests.
- Your Data Settings on Facebook provides a list of apps and sites you’ve used Facebook to log in to and allows you to remove these.
How Trend Micro can help
An easier option for managing your basic privacy on Facebook is the Trend Micro Privacy Scanner, which is available within Trend Micro Security on Windows and Mac, and within Mobile Security on Android and iOS. It automates the process of finding and fixing any potentially risky settings to keep your personal data safe from prying eyes.
It’s turned on by default in Trend Micro Internet and Maximum Security, as well as in Mobile Security.
- Either click on the Privacy icon in the TMS Console, or in the PC or Mac browser click the Trend Micro Toolbar and select Check Your Online Privacy/Check Social Network Privacy
- In Mobile Security, tap the panel for Social Network Privacy > Facebook.
- Once you’re signed in to Facebook, See Scan Results, and then click or tap Fix All, or click or tap on the drop-down to view and edit each issue separately.
Facebook is getting better at privacy, but its controls can be hard to find, and functionality is constantly being updated. That’s why we recommend a privacy audit every few months. Check in with your Facebook Privacy settings directly or via the Privacy Scanner to make sure you’re not leaking personal data. Privacy is subjective, but we’re all getting more critical about how big corporations use our data — and that’s not a bad thing.
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