Can Facebook Fix its ‘Fundamentally Flawed’ Privacy Settings

Do you find you can never get your Facebook privacy settings just right – that you’re sharing that message or photo you wanted to hide, or hiding the photo you wanted to share ?   A first-of-its kind, closer look study at the privacy settings on Facebook found you are not the only one.

A recently released study from Columbia University found that 94 percent of users on Facebook revealed information they didn’t intend to on the site, while almost 85 percent of those same users were hiding things they intended to share, presenting a “shortcoming of the privacy settings” on the site.

In short, the study’s researchers, Michelle Madejski, Maritza Johnson and Steven M. Bellovin, found that Facebook’s current approach to privacy is “fundamentally flawed,” and does not meet the majority of users’ expectations for privacy.

The problem, the researchers found, is this:

“One of the largest culprits for privacy flaws is Facebook’s reliance on data types for defining default privacy settings.  These datatypes are misrepresentative of the real world that Facebook attempts to model. Outside of a social network, an individual does not determine visibility of personal data by its format but instead by the context of its information.”

The study, believed to be the first to consider the privacy intention of Facebook’s more than 750 million registered users, was conducted by surveying 65 Columbia University students using a customized Facebook application.

Each of the 65 students who participated in the study “was sharing something they wished to hide, or was hiding something they wished to share,” researchers found.

The majority of the students, 62 out of 65, believed their Facebook privacy settings were aligned with their attitude toward privacy, when the study’s results showed that to be untrue.

And the ‘attitude toward privacy’ of most of the students is likely the same as the average Facebook user:  they want to share their status, location and photos with “real friends,” their friends in real life who are also on Facebook, but not as much with “Facebook friends,” acquaintances or colleagues who happen to be Facebook friends or friends of Facebook friends, whom they may not even know.

So if the privacy settings of the most popular social networking site in the world are “fundamentally flawed,” what are its users, and the site itself, to do?

The researchers take Facebook to task in the study, suggesting that “modications to existing settings and future settings on behalf of the user should err on the side of restricting information visibility.”

In other words, Facebook should change its default setting for privacy to hidden, not public.

They also recommend that Facebook follow their lead and, “regularly conduct similar studies to evaluate their privacy mechanisms, especially as new features are introduced.”

And for users?  Be your own best monitor.

That means do regular checks of your privacy settings.  Or, to really avoid any problems, delete your basic profile data fields and leave them blank.

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