Facebook offers users privacy checkup

New York TimesMay 22, 2014 


An undated handout screen grab of a privacy notification reminder alerting a user before they make a post on Facebook. The social network site announced on May 22, 2014, it will change how it treats new users by initially setting their posts to be seen only by friends and explain to them that adjusting the setting to “public” means that anyone on the Internet can see their photos and messages.


— Do you know who can see what you are posting on Facebook, including your photos, birthday and personal cellphone number?

Chances are that you don’t.

Responding to business pressures and longstanding concerns that its privacy settings are too complicated, Facebook announced Thursday that it was giving a privacy checkup to every one of its 1.28 billion users.

The company, based in Menlo Park, Calif., will also change how it treats new users by initially setting their posts to be seen only by friends. It will explain to them that adjusting the setting to “public” means that anyone on the Internet can see their photos and messages.

The change in default settings and the person-by-person review, which may shock users who suddenly realize how widely their personal information has been shared, is a sharp reversal for Facebook.

“They have gotten enough privacy black eyes at this point that I tend to believe that they realized they have to take care of consumers a lot better,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. Dixon was briefed in advance about the latest changes.

For most of its 10-year history, Facebook has pushed – and sometimes forced – its users to share more information more publicly, drawing fire from customers, regulators and privacy advocates across the globe.

But for Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, more sensitivity to privacy might be good business.

Zuckerberg has seen privacy-friendly services like WhatsApp and Snapchat, and anonymous-sharing apps like Secret and Whisper, emerge as a competitive threat, particularly among younger users. That prompted him to strike a deal earlier this year to buy WhatsApp for as much as $19 billion.

“What we really want is to enable people to share what they want,” Zuckerberg said in an interview last month. “People read a lot of the stuff that we do as if we are trying to somehow get people to share more things, but all the core innovations are around giving people the tools they need to be comfortable.”

Listening or listening in

Facebook might also be acting to forestall any actions by regulators, who constantly scrutinize its privacy practices. European privacy officials are reviewing the company’s proposed acquisition of WhatsApp, which follows stricter privacy procedures than Facebook does. In the United States, the company is wrangling in a federal appeals court over how it uses the personal data of teenagers in advertising sent to their friends.

Even as Facebook takes steps to empower its users on privacy, it continues to introduce features that raise new issues. On Wednesday, it announced an optional service for mobile phones that eavesdrops on the sounds in a room to try to identify any music or television shows that might be playing. Facebook says it doesn’t store the information for long, but it is the first time the company has tried to listen in on its users’ lives.

But Facebook has also made several other moves recently that indicate that it is taking privacy more seriously.

Last month, it began a location-sharing feature called Nearby Friends that is entirely optional and provides only a user’s general location. And it made changes to Facebook Login, a service that allows people to use their Facebook identities to log in to other sites and apps, that reduces the amount of information shared outside Facebook, and in some cases allows people to share nothing at all.

Managing settings

In its announcement, Facebook said that when people sign in to post something on the company’s popular social network, they will soon see a cartoon blue dinosaur that pops up with the message, “We just wanted to make sure you’re sharing with the right people.”

The service will then walk users through the privacy settings for their status updates, remind them of the applications that have permission to use their Facebook data, and review the privacy settings for some of the most private information on their profiles, such as their hometown, employer, email address, phone number and birth date.

“People sometimes feel that their information is more public than they want,” Mike Nowak, a Facebook product manager who worked on the privacy checkup, said in an interview. “It’s not fun when you share something, and someone you didn’t expect to be able to see it can see it.”

Privacy advocates have long complained that Facebook’s privacy controls, which allow people to set separate permissions for virtually every single item they put on the service, are too complicated.

And for years, Facebook has continued to push the envelope on privacy despite those concerns.

For example, when it first allowed its users to share posts publicly in 2009, it decided that the default setting for all posts by new users would be public, which meant that anyone could see them.

Dixon said that particular setting was a sore point for her, since new users were the ones least likely to understand the implications of posting publicly. “We’ve talked to too many people who never thought things would be made public,” she said.

A large monitor at Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters displays complaints from users in real time, and Nowak said it became clear that many people were accidentally sharing their status updates with a far broader audience than they intended.

“When people share more than they’re comfortable with, it’s bad for them and bad for us,” he said. “We think it’s an important thing to get right.”

But there is a risk: Facebook depends on advertising for its revenue, and if users were to suddenly start sharing less information, it could affect the company’s ability to target ads.

Facebook has not yet decided how extensive the privacy checkup will be, and it is still trying to determine how it will work for the 341 million users who access the service only through mobile devices. The company says it will push people to do a privacy checkup periodically, perhaps once a year like a doctor’s physical. Nowak said Facebook was concerned about being too intrusive with reminders and warnings to users.

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