We all know (we hope!) that Facebook’s raison d’être is to find out as much as it can about its users, so that it can turn a healthy profit by using that data to sell highly targeted advertising. The more information it can discover about a person, the valuable that information becomes.
Facebook must therefore find it galling when users decline to provide basic personal information, despite the prompts and gentle pushes it continually makes encouraging us to do so.
Well, it has now implemented a rather sneaky new tactic – guilting you into providing the information by pointing out to your friends that you haven’t specified your relation status, the school you attended, your employment, or any of a host of other personal information, and prompting them to ask for it.
The ‘Ask’ button is only available to friends, and they must provide a reason for requesting the information (which should help prevent over-enthusiastic friends from just hitting all the Ask buttons), but we still find this a very cheeky and intrusive attempt to extract information that users have already indicated they didn’t want to share by, well, not sharing it!
We encourage our readers (at least those who can’t bring themselves to just delete their Facebook profiles and never go near the service again) to use some version of AdBlock (Firefox or Chrome) so you never have to actually see Facebook ads (Firefox users can also use NoScript for even better protection).
Other ideas for ensuring a modicum of privacy when using Facebook include:
- Self-censorship – simply put, if there are things you don’t want (or that shouldn’t be) made public, don’t post details about them on Facebook! Remember that once posted it is very difficult to retract anything you have said, especially if it has been re-posted (or re-tweeted etc.) In addition to this, remember that the authorities monitor social networking sites and services.
- Keep private conversations private – it is all too common for people to discuss intimate details of a planned dinner date, or conversely to have personal rows using public channels. Remember that ‘Message’ exists, and use it. It won’t hide your conversations from advertisers, the law, or the NSA, but it will at least keep potentially embarrassing interactions away from friends and loved ones (who probably really don’t want to hear certain things anyway!)
- Use aliases – despite what Facebook tries to insist upon, there is nothing stopping you from using a false name. In fact, in this world where employers almost routinely check their staff’s (and potential staff’s) Facebook pages, using at least two aliases – a sensible one with your real name which is designed to make you look good to employers, and another where friends can post wildly drunken pictures of you, is almost a must. Remember that it is not just names you can lie about; you can also happily fib away about your date of birth, interests, gender, where you live, or anything else that will put advertisers and other trackers off the scent. On a more serious note, bloggers living under repressive regimes should always use aliases (together with IP cloaking measures such as VPN) when making posts that may threaten their life or liberty
- Keep checking your privacy settings – Facebook is notorious for continually changing the way its privacy settings work, so it is essential to regularly checking these to ensure they are as tight as possible (for example by ensuring that posts and photos are only shared with Friends, not Friends of Friends or ‘Public’). A good idea in Facebook is to ensure that ‘Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your time line’ (under Privacy Settings -> Timeline and Tagging) is set to ‘On’, to help limit the damage ‘friends’ can do to your profile .
- Use Diaspora instead – Diaspora is a non-profit, open source, user-owned, distributed social network that is based upon the free Diaspora software It is constructed of a network of nodes (called pods) hosted by volunteer individuals and institutions, and which act as personal web servers. Users of the network can host a pod on their own server or create an account on any existing pod of their choice, and from that pod can interact with other users on all other pods. As of March 2014 there are more than 1 million Diaspora accounts, and although it is a still very much a work in progress (and you will need to convince your friends to join on the network – always the biggest hurdle when moving away from Facebook), Diaspora is the most complete open source Facebook alternative available.
Always remember that Facebook is never really private, that any information you provide will be used to sell targeted advertising, and that the NSA, your government, law enforcement agencies etc. can all access your profile and any messages you type (including private ones).