Keep your Facebook profile private

Limit the amount of personal information you present to friends, friends of friends, and non-friends alike.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read

Earlier this month, an 82-year-old man in Auburn, Calif., was scammed out of $5,200 because his Facebook profile was too forthcoming. The first thing I did after reading his tale of woe on the Auburn Journal site was to examine my own Facebook profile from a stranger's perspective.

I didn't like what I saw.

What I saw was too much, so the second thing I did was edit my Facebook profile to remove some personal information and further restrict access to it. Unfortunately, the process took longer than I expected.

A Facebook privacy makeover begins by hovering the cursor over Settings and choosing Account Settings. The Settings tab shows your name, contact e-mail address, and other basic information. The Networks, Notifications, Mobile, Language, and Payments tabs are self-explanatory, although I unchecked several of the Notifications options that were selected by default.

The real work begins when you rework Facebook's privacy settings. Hover the cursor over Settings and choose Privacy Settings to open the service's Privacy Overview. Your privacy options are presented in four categories: Profile, Search, News Feed and Wall, and Applications. You can also add someone to your Block List by entering his or her name in the text box near the bottom of the page and clicking Block.

Facebook Privacy Overview page
Facebook's Privacy Settings are listed in four categories along with a tool for adding names to your Block List. Facebook

Click Profile to view your personal and contact information. Your options in each category are everyone, people in your networks and friends, friends of friends, only friends, and a Customize dialog box, which provides a bit more granularity to your options. Click the Save Changes button at the bottom of the page once you've finished making your selections.

Facebook custom privacy settings
The custom options in the Facebook privacy settings let you limit access to your personal info. Facebook

I reset each privacy option to Only Friends, with the exception of the Basic Info category, which is viewable by everyone. To see your profile as your friends do, enter the name of a friend in the text box at the top of this page. (You can view and edit the entries in your Basic Info by clicking Info on your profile page and choosing Edit Information.)

You might be surprised by the amount of information about you that Facebook's search function makes available. To change Facebook's search settings, click Search on the Privacy Overview page. The default option under Search Visibility is Everyone, but you can change this to Friends of Friends, Only Friends, or a custom setting for people in your networks.

I chose to show in search results only a link to send me a message. I also unchecked the option at the bottom of the screen to create a public search listing for me to submit to Web search engines. When you're done, click Save Changes.

Facebook search privacy settings
Uncheck options on the Facebook Search Privacy page to restrict your personal information shown in search results. Facebook

The default selections in Facebook's privacy settings for News Feed and Wall are similarly too open for my liking. It wasn't so much the options under Actions within Facebook, although I did uncheck several of these. The settings under Facebook Ads were a bigger concern to me.

There are two options on this page: "Allow ads on platform pages to show my information to" and "Show my social actions in Facebook Ads to." You can choose either "Only my friends" or "No one." Opting for the latter choice was a no-brainer for me.

More unpleasant surprises awaited on the Applications Privacy page. What your friends do affects how far afield your personal information travels. You can read about it under the Overview tab, which concludes by promising that Facebook won't sell your personal information and that "(y)our contact information is not exposed by the Facebook Platform."

I'm sure the Facebook Platform offers some real benefits, but until I have a better understanding of those benefits and their potential risks to my privacy, I'm opting out. To do so, choose "Do not share any information about me through the Facebook API." Take that a step further by selecting the other two options on this page, which block friends from viewing memberships in Facebook Connect sites and prevent Beacon sites from posting stories to your profile.

These days, I spend more time in Facebook than any other Web service except Gmail, and Facebook is gaining fast on that top spot. Of course, the bad guys are spending a lot more time there, too. Minimize your chances of catching their eye by lowering your profile.