AVG puts spotlight on Facebook

Facebook users should check privacy settings

Just how much personal information are you releasing when you use Facebook? Facebook may be giving third-party advertisers your personal information without you realising.

The social networking site has come under fire recently for its privacy policy and concerns have been raised about what information is being used by third-party Web sites. This doesn't bode well for Facebook's 400 million users, half of whom log on to the Web site everyday, according to Internet security company AVG.

A recent NY Times article pointed out that Facebook’s privacy policy is longer than the US Constitution. An AVG statement notes that the privacy policy is 5830 words long and contains 50 different privacy settings which have a possible 170 options for the user. But the biggest problem, according to AVG, is that most Facebook users are not aware of what information is being passed on and how they can prevent this.

AVG's Chief Research Officer, Roger Thompson, wrote a first-hand account of how privacy should not be taken lightly. He received a shock when he found that CNN’s Web site knew who his friends were.

According to one of Thompson's colleagues, Jas Dhaliwal, this can be attributed to the introduction of a 'social plug-in' tool that is used by more than 100,000 Web sites. Introduced only a few weeks ago, this plug-in shows you which of your friends click 'like' on a particular Web page. If none of your Facebook friends are clicking the 'like' button, then Facebook aggregates the popular stories that are 'liked' on the site as a whole.

These social plug-ins are a more developed version of Facebook Connect. Connect was designed to let you use your Facebook account to sign onto other sites.

"At the recent F8 conference, Facebook announced that they were going to remove the connect button. So, if you've logged in once, it will remember your login. The social plugin caches that login data and uses a custom API to show which of your friends (i.e. your social graph) are visiting the same site," wrote Dhaliwal.

"Facebook has done a very, very bad job at explaining this. For most people, when they see CNN's Facebook plug-in they are surprised, because as a user, you haven't given CNN or Facebook explicit permission to connect to your social graph/friends list."

Dhaliwal wrote that the most effective way of combating this problem would be to log out of Facebook once you have finished using it. Closing the browser window or tab does not mean you are logged out of Facebook automatically.

Lloyd Borrett, Marketing Manager at AVG Australia and New Zealand, suggests that users should create a number of groups for their Facebook friends and specifically divide them into friends, family and work. "This will allow you to assign a number of different sharing settings with each group. Therefore, only certain people see the data that you wish to share," he said.

AVG stresses that Facebook users should investigate the Facebook privacy page for themselves. "Our advice is to take a serious peek into your privacy settings and make sure you are happy with what you are or aren't sharing," said Borrett. "And don't forget you need to log out of Facebook once you finish reading posts. You just don't know what information could be leaking."

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