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Fear of Facebook: 7 free apps that guard your privacy

If you're a Facebook user and want to make sure your personal data is secure, these apps can help.

March 18, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Are you worried about Facebook being a privacy invader? Join the club.

The information Facebook gathers about its users -- not to mention the information people make available about themselves -- can make their lives an open book, offering details about their families, their interests, their habits, their likes and dislikes and personal photos. People are also worried about the possibility that Facebook can track their travels on the Web or that their information can be shared with advertisers for ad-targeting purposes.

Making matters worse is Facebook's constantly changing privacy policies and settings. In December 2012, Facebook changed its policies and settings yet again, causing not a little backlash from users. As a result, even if you had previously customized the settings the way you liked them, you had to go back in and edit them again. And trying to understand Facebook's privacy settings and fine-tuning them can be a difficult task.

Luckily, there are a number of free apps out there that can help you check the state of your Facebook privacy and make changes to them. In some instances, the app will simply inform you about the status of your Facebook privacy so you can make changes on your own; others can guide you through making those changes.

No matter how you use them, though, if you're worried about your privacy on Facebook, you'll want to check them out.

A couple of cautionary notes: First, since many of the apps listed here are only available on Facebook, you will need to be signed in to the service to access them.

And keep in mind that whenever you give access to your Facebook data to a third party, you need to read the privacy information it provides and gauge whether you feel it is a reputable company.

Facebook Disconnect

Once you're logged into Facebook, it knows which other websites you're browsing. How? Via the Facebook Connect service.

Facebook Connect sends information about the sites you visit back to Facebook. That's why, at many websites, you'll see comments that friends of yours have made there, or see their activity -- you have Facebook Connect to thank for that.

If this tracking bothers you, there's a way to turn it off -- get the free Facebook Disconnect add-on for Chrome, Firefox or Safari. After you install it, Disconnect blocks Facebook Connect from tracking you, but you'll still be able to use Facebook. And when you visit Web pages, you won't see traces of your friends, or the ubiquitous Facebook Like button sprinkled seemingly all over the Web.

Facebook Disconnect
Once installed, Facebook Disconnect invisibly blocks Facebook Connect from tracking you.

Since Facebook isn't the only service that follows you as you browse, Disconnect also has apps for Google and Twitter; or you can download its one-app-fits-all general app.

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McAfee Social Protection places an additional layer of protection around your Facebook photos. Once installed -- it's both a Facebook app and a browser plugin -- it allows you to share photo galleries in a more closely guarded way than with normal Facebook permissions.

(Note: Because Social Protection is in beta; it can be used only by computers running Windows 7 Home Premium Edition or higher along with Firefox 8.0 or higher, Internet Explorer 8.0 or higher, or Chrome.)

Photo galleries protected by Social Protection can be viewed only by other users with Social Protection installed -- and, what's more, the photos can't be printed, copied using a right-click or captured with the Print Screen key.

McAfee Social Protection
McAfee Social Protection warns users that protected photos can't be copied.

The process of creating a protected album is a little inflexible. You have to upload any photos you wanted protected through the Social Protection app; you can't take an existing Facebook photo album and protect it. Protection for images is pretty thorough, though: Screen captures simply show a black rectangle where the browser window would be and the source code for the page appears to be heavily obscured, making it difficult to harvest the image that way.

Social Protection uses features of the Windows Aero subsystem to protect images from being copied. If you disable Aero or access the desktop via a remote-login system (such as LogMeIn ) that doesn't use Aero, the app displays a note to this effect and refuses to load the galleries at all.

McAfee has also introduced a standalone Android app that lets you browse protected galleries and upload photos -- from your phone's camera or its library -- into new or existing protected galleries.

While the basic idea does work, this is still definitely a beta: After browsing a protected gallery, I occasionally had a little window that didn't seem attached to any application pop up on the desktop. (It disappeared after I closed the browser.) So while Social Protection looks like it may be an interesting app, especially for photographers who upload to Facebook, you may want to wait until it's a bit more polished.

--Serdar Yegulalp

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