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What information are YOU sharing on Facebook?

Facebook. It’s the most popular hangout on the Internet – ranking #1 globally and #2 in the United States among the most visited websites.

The ability to “spy” on your Facebook friends can be rather interesting and humorous. Most people share way more about their personal lives and thoughts in this online forum than they would in normal day-to-day conversation. We know more about others than ever before.

But what people knowingly share on Facebook pales in comparison to the exorbitant amount of personal information collected behind-the-scenes by Facebook and other Internet sites. This raises serious questions about your online privacy: What information is being collected?  How is it being used?  Could it fall into the wrong hands?

In this two-part series, we will briefly examine the facts about your privacy on the Internet, followed by providing practical ways you can protect your personal information while still using the social networking sites.

A recent study by Consumer Reports found that:

  • 4.7 million people “liked” a Facebook page about health conditions or treatments (details an insurer might use against you)
  • 4.8 million have posted on Facebook where they planned to go on a certain day (a potential tip-off for burglars)
  • 20.4 million include their birth date on their profiles (can be used by identity thieves)
  • 900,000 discussed finances on their wall
  • 2.6 million discussed their recreational use of alcohol on their wall (can be used by employers and schools)
  • 4.6 million discussed their love life on their wall

This information is willingly provided by Facebook users through status updates, uploaded pictures, comments, and profile details. Most of it doesn’t require special access for others to see it – considering that 28 percent of all Facebook users share all, or almost all, of their wall posts with people other than just their friends.

And others DO use the information you post.

Employers, insurance companies and college admissions departments regularly check Facebook to obtain information on potential employees, insureds, or students. What they find can be used to make a determination about you.

Government agencies, such as the IRS, use Facebook as a research tool in resolving taxpayer cases. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and consumer rights group, obtained a 2009 training manual that offered this example of how an agent could use Facebook:  “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. It suggests the agent contact past performance locations to find out how much the comedian was paid or serve the performer a summons at a future venue.”

As mentioned before, criminals and enemies can also use information you post against you.

However, did you know that …

  • Facebook receives a report every time you visit a site with a Facebook “Like” button – even if you never click the button or are not even logged in to Facebook?
  • Your personal information could be given to a third-party without your knowledge if you have a friend using a Facebook app that extracts that data – even if you have locked down your privacy settings?
  • Facebook uses facial recognition software that detects your face in photos, allowing friends to easily tag you – and this is automatically allowed by default?

Sites like Facebook have a reason for collecting this vast amount of information on you. It’s valuable.

Companies appreciate having this detailed market research readily available to them at a very low cost. They use this information to target consumers who are most likely to buy their products or services.

While Facebook doesn’t give these companies your information without your consent, when you click on an ad, “like” a page, or make a purchase, you may be giving them access to more information than you think.

It’s a scary world out there. Because the Internet is an integral part of our daily lives, avoiding it really isn’t an option – especially if you’ve already joined the over 900 million Facebook users.

In the next column, I’ll provide practical steps you can take to protect your privacy and personal information.