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Be vigilant in protecting your online privacy

Some say consumer privacy is all but gone. And perhaps it largely is.

But there are steps you can take to limit your exposure — even with the latest move by popular social networking site Facebook to foster more social interaction across tens of thousands of websites on the Internet (known as Instant Personalization).

Let's face it, Facebook isn't going away, not with some 400 million users and growing. What you can do is try to take some control over your public persona.

In addition to Facebook's new "like" button that shows you the websites your friends are viewing, there's the keyword listing of your "status" posts on pages that can be viewed by the general public, not just your friends.

With the constant changes to the social networks — often to the chagrin of Facebook users — it's difficult to know exactly how much of the information you post is being published in places you are unaware of or might never discover.

I had a chat with Dan Costa, executive editor of PCmag.com, who tracks and writes about what is happening on the social networks and what consumers should know.

Costa urges consumers to more actively engage in the use of privacy controls on their social networks. Just like many online tools, Facebook generally requires you to "opt out" of something rather than choose to do it.

"They do have a lot of privacy controls," Costa said. "Most people don't use them."

Because we as consumers have been conditioned to skip through or click through agreements, we ignore vital information about protecting our privacy.

And on Facebook, many of the settings default to "share everything," Costa said. But even for those things that go to just your "friends," you always have to remember friends of your friends might also see some of that information and pass it along.

And when you add so-called applications such as "Farmville," "Mafia Wars," and those "quizzes," you allow the program access to your profile and your friends for as long as you keep it active.

"My rule of thumb is: 'Don't put on Facebook anything you wouldn't put on a Web page,' " Costa said. "The thing that people don't often realize is when this stuff goes out and gets published on the Internet, it never goes away."

In response to questions about privacy, Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for Facebook, stated via e-mail:

"We appreciate the concerns that have been raised about user control of our new capabilities. We understand that maintaining users' privacy is of paramount importance, not just to them but to the ecosystem of the Internet as a whole.

"We believe that upon close examination, the new features that we have offered and the tools for our users to engage with them — or turn them off — will be embraced. At the same time, we are listening and responding to concerns."

Another option: You can, of course, delete your Facebook profile and start all over, again. But that doesn't mean all of your previous posts are gone.

Costa suggests several ways to protect yourself. So here's the Edge in dealing with privacy on Facebook:

• Review your settings for the new Instant Personalization tool. If you want to restrict this new Facebook feature that can identify Web sites and links you visit, go to privacy settings, then applications and websites and click Instant Personalization to opt out.

• Check the privacy settings for photos. You can prevent people from identifying or "tagging" you in photos they post by visiting your privacy settings in your account. This is a way to prevent your boss from seeing that picture of you when …

• Decide who can see your status updates. The lock on your status comment section allows you to determine who can see the messages you post.

• Delete old, unused applications. If you decide you don't plan to use an application anymore, dump the program. And be cautious about the applications you accept as you are giving away your profile information to that program.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/consumers_edge and become a fan of Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Be vigilant in protecting your online privacy 04/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 11:12pm]

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