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Study Shows Facebook Related Privacy Problems are on the Rise

An IRS officer learns that a taxpayer he’s investigating is a comedian who posts a video on a social network to promote previous and upcoming performances. . .

Sounds like the start of a “guy walks into a bar joke” but that line comes from the 2009 IRS agent training manual. It goes on to suggest that the agent use this knowledge to track down how much the comedian was paid or use his future dates to arrange delivery of a summons.

This is just one of the eye-openers you’ll find in the new Consumer Reports: State of the Net Report. Instead of simply surveying Facebook users, Consumer Reports interviewed developers, lawyers, security experts and non-profit groups that dig out all kinds of hidden information. What they found is that Facebook is become less and less secure. I’m sure you already knew that, but I’ll bet there are a few ideas here you’ve never thought about.

For example. Suppose you were just diagnosed with disease. You might want to “like” a support group on Facebook. If your profile is set to public like the 28% of all users, your employer and your insurance company and all your friends now have access to this information.

Or maybe you’re one of the 4.8 million people who mentioned specific times they’ll be away on vacation. Can you say, “rob my house, please?” Age old, groundless worry, right? Maybe now, but the risk is rising. Consumer Reports found a 30% rise in people who say they encountered a problem thanks to Facebook. Even with the rise, the percentage overall is small, but you can see where this is going.

Facebook is becoming more than just a place to connect with old friends. It’s being used as a lifeline during a disaster. It’s a means of delivering a political message. It’s helping people find jobs, new homes, even new organs. Just this week, Mark Zuckerberg asked users to post their organ donation status on their profile page to help raise awareness.

All of these are good things, but they all have the potential to go very wrong. But is that Facebook’s problem? Consumer Reports says that 13 million users haven’t set, or don’t know how to set, their privacy controls. Granted, the privacy settings can be tricky if you only want to block certain people from certain things, but at least Facebook has made the effort.

Robert Scoble is on the pro side:

“I make everything public on my Facebook account and I’m not worried about privacy because the more I share about who I am and what interests me, the more Facebook can bring me content that I care about. Yes, people have lost jobs because of things they have posted on Facebook, but you can also end up getting jobs and making all kinds of great connections because you’ve posted about your passions.”

James Steyer of Common Sense Media has a different view:

“Last time I checked, large corporate interests aren’t allowed to trample on widely recognized fundamental rights just because their founders have invented some new, profitable privacy-busting product, yet that is exactly what has happened to privacy rights over the past few years.”

The Consumer Reports report details a handful of cases where Facebook was caught collecting and / or spreading information it shouldn’t have. It also talks about how data is the basis for targeted advertising which benefits both the consumer and the business.

The final word in this lengthy report is that Facebook could and should be doing more to protect the privacy of users. Consumer Reports also recommends that the government impose stricter rules that hold all companies to the same standard. But in the end, even they admit that it’s not all on Facebook. Much of the responsibility lies with the user (and that includes marketers on Facebook, too.)

They end with a quote that aligns with my thoughts on the matter. Security expert Ed Skoudis says;

“Maximize your privacy settings, but even then, assume anything you do on Facebook can be seen by all of your friends, your mom, your great-great-grandchildren, your employer, health insurer, and the government.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Read the full report at ConsumerReports.org.