Our private Facebook lives

At times the Internet can be a bit dangerous. A search of your name can reveal a lot of information, including your Permanent Account Number, your election ID number and even your full address… a jackpot for identity thieves. This is all someone needs to access your banking information and leave you broke.
They can take a loan, buy a car, or even file fraudulent tax returns in your name. If arrested, they could even give your name and address to the police and fail to show up for a court hearing. In such a case the warrant for arrest will be issued in your name, all because you did not bother about privacy on websites such as Facebook.

A few days back, Verisign caught someone selling personal information of people from Facebook. Accounts that had 10 or less friends were priced at $25 per 1,000 accounts and those with more than 10 friends at $45 for a 1,000. The seller claimed to have access to 1.5 million Facebook accounts.

Facebook has given us some wonderful moments, connecting us with long lost friends and relatives. But it also puts up a lot of personal information about you on the Net. Though for you and me privacy may not be a priority, it is something that you should always keep a tab on.

A great way to start is search your name on Google. If you were to run a search for my name “Gagandeep S. Sapra” — the quotes are important to restrict the search to these words only — you get about 19,000 results out of which some may disclose my email ID and even my office telephone numbers. But my personal details, like my Facebook page, do not turn up in a simple search, thanks to my privacy settings.

So what are these privacy settings? Facebook defines privacy settings into three broad categories — Friends, Friends of Friends and Everyone. What you have to be careful about is the last one, as this is the default for a lot of the settings and can expose your thoughts, your personal information and your relationships to the whole world.

In the last few days Facebook has been receiving a lot of flak from people across the globe, prompting them to simplify their privacy settings. Since it is still not all that simple, here is what you must do to stay safe online.

FRIEND LISTS: Since my parents are also on Facebook, I really don’t want them to see every post I make. We all have a different style of talking to our friends and our family, and this is why friend lists are important. If you have not classified your friends as yet, it is time you did. It could be a simple distribution into friends and family, or a complicated one like school friends, college friends, work friends and family. The good thing here is that you can add the same person to more than one list, and at the time of posting choose which group of friends can see this post. So if you are posting a video you want the world to see, you can select everyone, but if there is something you will like to restrict to your closest buddies just click of the friend list of your choice. To configure your friend lists, click Friends from your left hand menu and select Create a List. The next step is to ensure who can comment or write a status on your wall, as long as you set this up to your friend lists, it is okay, but if it is set to anyone, anyone can search for you, reach your wall and write anything on it.

KEEP YOUR FRIEND LISTS PRIVATE: We all want to show off that we are friends with so many people. The other day, I met someone who mentioned he knew ‘Barrack O Bama’ on Facebook. Well, it’s great to know that you are friends with the ‘American President’, but it is also your responsibility to secure your friends. Hence, it is a good policy to turn off your friends’ visibility to others. Though this may not seem too much right away, you don’t want your friends to get unsolicited marketing email/spam just because they are your friends.

MAKE CONTACT INFORMATION PRIVATE: We all want to put our phone numbers and email addresses online so that our friends can contact us easily. But making this information public is also taking a big risk. The settings has now been simplified into three broad categories — Email & IM, Birthday and Phone Numbers and Address. Since I don’t really want everyone to run a search on me and find out where I live, or when my Birthday is, or what my phone number is, it is best to select the option Friends. If you choose to select the Everyone option, anyone who searches for you will be able to see this information.

RELATIONSHIP STATUS: It is funny to see a status update saying Friend X is now married to Friend Z when they have been married for over a decade and just updated their profile. It is good to share this information with your friends and business contacts, but there will be a flurry of congratulatory messages every time you update the status. So it is better to get rid of the settings for this and make sure this is displayed only to you and your loved ones, not the whole world.

BASIC DIRECTORY INFORMATION: So, who should be able to search for you on Facebook? Go to your directory information settings and make sure you set up options that control what amount of information comes up in a search, who can really search for you or send you a message, or see your interests, your work and educational backgrounds.

A recent report by eweek shows the leak of accounts and there availability on the black market, in case you are interested in the report, you can read it online at the eweek website (Please note this report is not authored by me)

The above article appeared in the Indian Express, on Sunday 6th June 2010