Five Facebook privacy myths



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21 October 2011 | 0

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of a completely open society controlled by the wisdom of crowd can be admired for its purity, yet the social network’s blasé attitude to privacy has left it wide open to exploitation from scam artists, identity thieves, stalkers and bullies. Prompted by a complaint by Austrian pressure group Europe v Facebook, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) will, over the coming week, start an audit from the company’s international base of operations in Dublin. What the DPC will uncover, if nothing else, will be some insight into how Facebook views its users and data protection legislation. The fear is the former are considered marketing opportunities and the latter an inconvenient barrier.

One of the central questions the DPC will be looking at is how data is stored. Where, say, Google prides says it treats personal data like a stuffed suitcase (yours to take wherever you like), Facebook sees it more like a bedroom: lots of fun stuff on the walls, but immovable and owned by someone else. So how worried should be already be? Here are a few common myths about what Facebook has on its users explored:

Myth: Your friends can post your location
True or false: False

Despite being the raison d’être of popular casual gaming network FourSquare, location sharing on its own never took off with Facebook Places. According to internal stats only 6% of users bothered with it in its first two months and failed to kick on from there. The service is still available on mobile devices and you can tag status updates with your location, but the idea of arbitrarily ‘checking into’ places (airports and hotels being popular choices) is no longer with us.




To double check go into Privacy settings> How tags work> edit settings> and set ‘friends can check you into places’ to ‘off’.

Myth: Facebook holds on to your data, even if you delete your account
True or false: False

Facebook is obliged to delete all your personal data when you get rid of your account, but there are two ways to close your account: deactivating, which is temporary and easily done; and deleting, which is permanent and not as easy to do.

Deactivating an account is done by clicking the link on your account settings (accessed on the top right of your screen under the Home arrow). This closes your account but does not remove it from Facebook’s servers, making it a simple matter of reactivating your profile should you decide to come back, instead of having to start rebuilding your network over.

To delete a profile permanently you have to go to the website’s help centre and submit a request. It’s not a huge process, so long as you know where to look.

We’re marking this myth ‘false’ subject to the DPC audit not finding something more sinister.

Myth: Facebook has to provide you with a disc with all the data they have on you
True or false: False

Under Irish law Facebook is obliged under Irish Law to give you a copy of all your personal data but it does not have to be in a physical form. This comes as a bit of a disappointment to Europe v Facebook, which was hoping to cost the company hundreds of thousands of euro in pressing, posting and packaging discs.

According to section four of the Data Protection Act, individuals have a right to receive a copy of "any type of information such as written details about you held electronically or on paper, photographs and CCTV images. You are also entitled to know where the information was obtained, how it has been used and if it has been passed on to anyone else." Only a written request is needed.

Right now Facebook provides a function for you to download a basic archive consisting of photos, wall posts, messages, chat conversations attached to your profile and your friends’ contact details. Under this function you don’t have access to friends’ pictures and updates, personal information and comments you’ve left on other people’s walls. Just click the link on your account settings page.

Myth: Facial recognition technology is tagging pictures of you without permission
True or false: False

Automatic face recognition was launched in June 2011 to instant outcry from privacy activists. The software automatically scans and tags pictures, but the tool was slammed as a way of collecting biometric data without consent. Legal action was threatened in Germany that could have seen a €300,000 fine imposed lest some sort of opt-out be provided.

To deactivate the feature go to Privacy settings> How tags work> edit settings> set ‘tag suggestions’ to ‘off’. While you’re there you should also make sure the option to approve tags is enabled (it should be). This will give you additional control over what pictures you get to be seen in.

Myth: Third party software developers know who you are
True or false: True

Under Facebook’s developer platform policies third parties have access to your ‘basic information’ once you install their application. This means your name, e-mail, gender, birthday, current city and profile picture up for grabs. So yes, developers do know who is on their books but you have to give them permission to get hold of your details first. So make sure you really want that movie/music/TV quiz before you give it permission.

Be on the lookout for fake apps. These typically appear unprompted, asking you to take part in surveys or are required to see a scandalous/exclusive video clip.

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