Know Your Way Around Facebook Privacy

Over the past few months, there’s been a lot of buzz about Facebook and the amount of privacy they’re giving us and our profiles. How much of our data do 3rd party developers have access to? What can our friends share about us without us knowing? What information is going to other websites? I’ll answer those questions and tell you how to protect your information the best you can while using Facebook.

I plan to answer two main questions throughout this article:

  1. Who has access to my data?
  2. How can I control who has access to my data?

I’m going to do this with the major features of Facebook- none of which are more important than the profile itself.

Your Profile

The Facebook Profile Page

It would be too much to say that when you sign up for Facebook, your profile is completely open to the public. It’s not. However, it’s probably more public that you’d like it to be. Below is a screenshot of the initial (or “Recommended”) profile privacy settings.

Initial Privacy Settings

This might seem harmless without any information to protect against, but think about a few days, weeks, or months down the road; do you really want anyone on the Internet reading that status about how you hate your boss, or viewing that photo from your friend’s 21st birthday party? And when they say everyone, they mean everyone- someone who searches your name could be pointed to your Facebook profile, where he’ll read what you really think of your neighbor’s dog. But it’s not just limited to Facebook.

Because of Facebook’s API, application developers can pull any information from your profile that’s open to everyone and display it on their site or app. To see an example of this, head over to and search for a word or phrase. I think you’ll be surprised at what comes up from people who either don’t know or don’t care that their information is accessible to everyone. Luckily, Facebook makes it very easy to make your profile private.

Privatize Your Profile

To view all of your privacy settings, go to Account->Privacy Settings. Here you’ll see a table with four options: Everyone, Friends of Friends, Friends Only, and Recommended. Recommended is the default settings, and they are as listed above. Everyone and Friends Only will place every option listed in their respective settings (all ‘Everyone’ or all ‘Friends Only’). If you choose Friends of Friends, the first four options will be set to ‘Friends of Friends’ and the final five options will be set to ‘Friends Only’.  But that’s not all; towards the bottom of this box is the link, “Customize settings.” This give you fine grain control over who sees what on your profile.

The Customize settings area

These options allow you to make up your own settings for each item listed here, and expands the list of people who can see each item. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Everyone: Anyone on the Internet will be able to see this information.
  • Friends and Networks: People you’re friends with, as well as networks you’re a part of. A network is usually a school, workplace, or geographic location.
  • Friends of Friends: People you’re friends with, and their friends. These are people with 2 degrees of separation from you.
  • Friends Only: Only people you’re friends with.

On top of these, there is a customization option where you can choose any of the above, as well as select specific networks, people, or lists to exclude. If you want your school friends to see something, but not your work friends, you can set that here.

A list allows you to group friends together, making them easier to manage (with privacy, your newsfeed, etc). For example, if any of my students friend me, I add them to a list with stricter privacy settings than my friends. To create a list, go to Account->Edit Friends->Create a List.

You should take a good look at each of the privacy settings here before we move on. Most of it is stuff you’re probably aware of, but things like check ins (for Facebook Places) may take you by surprise. You can also control (to an extent) how your friends interact with your profile and who can see those interactions. This can save you a lot of trouble if a friend absentmindedly posts something that can hurt your reputation.

If you’re curious to see how a person or list sees your profile, you can click the “Preview my Profile” button and type in a friend’s or list’s name to see how it looks.

Preview Profile

Privacy Outside of  Your Profile

There are a couple of other areas outside of your profile your should be aware of when it comes to your privacy- most notably is with Facebook apps, games, and websites. From the privacy settings page, you can click “Edit your settings” under the Apps and Websites heading to manage your apps.

Facebook App Settings

When adding a new Facebook app, make sure you read what it’s asking permission to access! Part of manage your privacy is know what data apps are accessing.

This page is broken down into four sections:

The first is Apps you use. Here you can change the permissions of any of the apps you’ve installed to your Facebook account. Click “Edit Settings” to view the full list of apps and websites, then click the “Edit Settings” that corresponds with the app you want to modify. You can change the permissions of anything that is not noted as required. If you want to remove something that is required, you’ll have to remove the app. You can do this by clicking the “x” to the right of “Edit Settings”.

Edit App Permissions

Next is Info accessible through your friends: When your friends use an app, the app may gain access to information in your profile, even if you don’t use the app yourself. You can manage what info is available to the apps your friends use here.

The last two options on this page are very important, but not too well known. Instant Personalization is a feature that will grant Facebook’s partner sites (3rd party websites) access to your information to make your experience more personalized. While this sounds like a fun idea, it’s possible for your information to get into the wrong hands this way. Instant Personalization is enabled by default. To disable it, click “Edit Settings” and uncheck, “Enable instant personalization on partner websites.”

The final option is public search, which is also enabled by default. This allows a preview of your profile to show up in search engines when people search your name. To remove yourself from search engines, click “Edit Settings” and uncheck, “Enable public search.” If you’d like to keeps this on, you can see what your preview looks like with this URL:, and you can manage your preview through the privacy settings.

Block Lists

The Block Lists Page

Sometimes, privacy settings aren’t enough. To get rid of certain Facebook pests once and for all, you’ll have to block them. To get to here, on the privacy settings page under the heading “Block Lists,” click, “Edit your lists.” You can block:

  • People from sending friend requests and viewing your profile
  • App invites from people who invite you to everything they’ve ever played or tried
  • Event invites from people or pages who promote a new event every day
  • Specific apps you get new requests for all the time

This is a great way to keep your notifications page clean, as well as protect yourself from those constant request annoyances.

Recently, Facebook made it so when someone friend requests you, you can say you don’t know that person. He or she will no longer be able to send you a friend request after that.

Final Thoughts

If you didn’t get enough here, Facebook has a pretty comprehensive guide with videos that you can check out here. Hopefully this has helped you navigate your way to a more private, safer Facebook account. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments. Here are some parting tips on Facebook privacy for you:

  • Only accept friend requests from people you actually know. Some social networking sites are good for meeting people, but because of the volume of info shared on Facebook, I wouldn’t recommend accept people you haven’t actually met.
  • Keep tabs on your account- you can untag yourself and flag photos and videos that could get you into trouble.
  • If you don’t want someone to read or see something, there is only one sure fire way to keep it private: don’t post it on the Internet. The Internet is more permanent than ink- once something’s on there, it’s there to stay.