Facebook users beware

Protect personal information by familiarizing yourself with Facebook’s privacy settings

As of Sept. 15, Facebook serves more than 300 million people.
As of Sept. 15, Facebook serves more than 300 million people.
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Facebook is a vital aspect of student life at Queen’s. Students can meet and interact with their roommates months before arriving on campus. Coordinating study sessions and nights on the town becomes effortless. Sharing photos and videos with loved ones remedies homesickness.

Yet concerns over privacy and safety on Facebook abound. Even the terms often used to describe Facebook such as stalking, creeping and over-sharing suggest it’s an outlet for harm. From this perspective, Facebook users are prey to deranged exes and nefarious strangers.

While those risks are palpable, users should be more concerned about what Facebook and third-party applications do with their personal information. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released a report in July detailing Facebook’s violations of Canadian privacy laws. In response to this report, Facebook agreed to implement several measures ensuring the safety of the personal information it holds.

Although this is a step in the right direction, much remains to be done to protect your online presence.

Currently, third-party applications like quizzes and games have full access to your profile when added. They also gather information about your friends, even if they don’t use the application. Hardly any of this information is necessary or relevant for these programs. Under the new terms, developers will have to request specific information and justify why each item is required.This is clearly good news for users, although the new framework will take roughly a year to implement.

Students attempting to leave Facebook have realized a permanent withdrawal isn’t possible. Instead, their account is deactivated and kept in Facebook limbo. Facebook retains all status updates, wallposts and photos, allowing a return to the social network one click away. Facebook has since introduced an option to permanently delete your account, should you decide to live off the grid. Yet this option is buried in the account settings menu. It’s possible, but not easy, to quit Facebook. Even deactivation is met with a formidable guilt trip.

In the unfortunate event that your profile outlives you, Facebook’s default response is to ‘memorialize’ it. Your online presence is retained indefinitely as a site for others to grieve and pay tribute. While this has been the case for a few years, the revised privacy policy will make this function more explicit.

This is a compelling example of the permanency social media offers. A comment or photo uploaded in a passing moment will not only haunt you during a job interview, but might provide the backdrop to your posthumous reputation. This is hardly the outcome students have in mind when creating their profile.

While these revisions aren’t groundbreaking, they’re all part of an attempt to make Facebook more transparent. For all the speculation about third-party applications and permanent databases, we now have more insight into what Facebook does with the information it collects. This is entirely reasonable. We’ve become so visible and transparent when sharing personal details with Facebook, it’s only fair that we know more about the site that houses and distributes this information.

Playing it safe on Facebook is an ongoing concern. Many users aren’t familiar with Facebook’s privacy policy, or the extensive safeguards offered in its privacy settings. It’s crucial that students use these safeguards in order to restrict who can access their information.

Protecting your profile is more than a one-time deal. Students should periodically return to the privacy settings to maintain their safety. Facebook is always implementing new features like video tagging, public profiles and social advertising schemes, with corresponding privacy settings added. By default, these settings leave you wide open to public scrutiny.

Facebook’s privacy settings will limit your exposure if they’re properly used. But students can do a lot more to ensure their personal details don’t end up in the wrong hands. They should be discriminating users. This means not adding friends you don’t know or trust and thinking twice before adding third-party applications.Most importantly, students shouldn’t upload anything they wouldn’t want their parents, employers, or future grandchildren to see. Privacy settings aside, incriminating photos and messages have a funny way of getting around.

Dan Trottier is a fourth-year PhD Sociology student who teaches a course on communication and information technology and previously taught a course on surveillance.

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