An estimated 13 million U.S. Facebook users choose not to change, or are not even aware of the service's privacy settings. This means they are potentially sharing personal information with more than just their network of Facebook friends.
To put the number into perspective, remember that Facebook has over 169 million monthly active users in the U.S. as of March 31, 2012, and over 901 million monthly active users in total.
This means some 7.69 percent of U.S. Facebook users aren't aware of privacy risks, or simply don't care. Last year, Facebook CTO Bret Taylor was quoted as saying: "The majority of people on Facebook have modified their privacy settings."
The data, which is extrapolated from 2,002 households surveyed (1,340 of which identified as being active on Facebook), comes from a new investigation by Consumer Reports, the full results for which are available in its June 2012 issue. This leads me to my next point: I think percentages are a better way of quoting these results, rather than using raw projection numbers. Small percentage numbers don't have as big of an impact, however, as large numbers in the millions. Keep that in mind as you read.
Consumer Reports also underlined that Facebook users who install an app could grant it access to their information without their knowledge. Only 37 percent of users say they have used the site's privacy tools to customize how much information apps are allowed to see. For more information on how to change the settings for your Facebook apps, check out How to protect your Facebook account from stalkers.
The report also revealed that a projected 4.8 million people have posted about where they planned to go on a certain day, a potential tip-off to burglars. Furthermore, 4.7 million have Liked a Facebook page about health conditions or treatments, details that insurers might use against them.
Americans feed all kinds of personal details into Facebook's vast database by posting status updates, updating their profile, Liking a Page, or via other Facebook features. Consumer Reports projects the following number of U.S. Facebook users have engaged in each activity during the past 12 months (again, raw numbers instead of percentages incoming):
- 39.3 million identified a family member in a profile.
- 20.4 million included their birth date and year in their profile.
- 7.7 million Liked a Facebook Page pertaining to a religious affiliation.
- 4.6 million discussed their love life on their Wall.
- 2.6 million discussed their recreational use of alcohol on their Wall.
- 2.3 million Liked a Page regarding sexual orientation.
Consumer Reports is thus offering users nine tips on how to understand and utilize the service's privacy tools:
- Think before typing. Even if you delete you account (which takes Facebook about a month), some info can remain in Facebook's computers for up to 90 days.
- Regularly check Facebook exposure. Each month, you should check out how your profile looks to others. Review individual privacy settings if necessary.
- Protect basic information. Set the audience for profile items, such as town or employer. And remember: Sharing info with "friends of friends" could expose you to tens of thousands.
- Know what can't be protected. Each user's name and profile picture are public. To protect your identity, you should not use a photo, or use one that doesn't show your face.
- "UnPublic" the wall. Set the audience for all previous Wall posts to just friends.
- Turn off Tag Suggest. If you would rather not have Facebook automatically recognize your face in photos, you can disable that feature in your privacy settings. The information will be deleted.
- Block apps and sites that snoop. Unless users intercede, friends can share personal information about you with apps. To block that, you should use controls to limit the info apps can see.
- Keep Wall posts from friends. You don't have to share every wall post with every friend. You can also keep certain people from viewing specific items in your profile.
- When all else fails, deactivate. When you deactivate their account, Facebook retains your profile data but the account is made temporarily inaccessible. Deleting an account, on the other hand, makes it inaccessible forever.
"Facebook really is changing the way the world socially communicates and has become a successful service in part by leveraging copious amounts of personal data that can be spread far wider than its users might realize," Consumer Reports Technology Editor Jeff Fox said in a statement. "Our investigation revealed some fascinating, and some disquieting trends – but ones always worth knowing for consumers who wish to keep their personal data under better control."
Update at 7:00 AM PST - "We believe more than 900 million consumers have voluntarily decided to share and connect on Facebook because we provide them options and tools that place them in control of their information and experience," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "As part of our effort to empower and educate consumers, we always welcome constructive conversations about online privacy and safety."
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