5 tips to protect yourself on Facebook

Stay safe and protect your privacy online with these suggestions

After news hit this week that Facebook developers are furiously trying to fix a bug that lets spammers harvest users' names and photos, the issue of online safety has reared its ugly head again.

Privacy and security problems have plagued Facebook and its more than 500 million users -- a lot -- over the past several months.

Much of the most recent turmoil was kicked up this past April when Facebook unveiled a list of new tools that allow user information to be easily shared with third-party Web sites.

That move caused an online uproar among users, and even prompted a handful of U.S. senators to write an open letter calling on Facebook to amend its privacy policies.

Facebook responded to the unrest with the release in May of a set of simpler privacy controls. However, despite the social network's efforts, concern about privacy and security seems to always be boiling just under the surface among users.

Oddly enough, though, that doesn't mean that most users have battened down their security hatches or have even rethought the kind of information they routinely post about themselves.

In light of the concern about privacy and security -- and the fact that users don't seem to doing what they should be doing to safeguard their information -- Computerworld talked with analysts to come up with five suggestions to protect you and your personal information if you're one of the half a billion Facebook users sharing pictures, videos and updates about your latest dates or upcoming vacations.

1. Understand Facebook's security settings and use them

Most analysts called this step absolutely mandatory. Larry Hawes, an analyst at Gilbane Group, noted that users need to find out where the security settings are on Facebook and take the time to learn how to use them to control what information is shared with people, applications and Web sites.

Augie Ray, an analyst at Forrester Research, added that people should seriously consider only sharing their information with their online friends.

To do that, Ray noted that users can access their privacy settings by clicking on "Account" in the upper right-hand corner of their Facebook page, and then clicking "Privacy Settings." People who want to set their privacy settings as tight as possible can select "Friends Only." Also uncheck the box marked "Let friends of people tagged in my photos and posts see them," and then click "Apply these Settings."

2. Who's your buddy?

Come on. This is not high school and Facebook isn't a popularity contest. You don't need to be "friends" with everyone.

Actually, a good reality check is if this person is actually a friend or family member in real life. If they're not an actual friend, why would you want them to know when you're stuck working late, getting ready to go on vacation or that you just bought a new computer or flat-screen TV?

"Remember that sharing with friends only is the strictest level of security that exists on Facebook," Hawes said. "Be sure the people you friend are ones that you know and trust."

3. Beware of those applications

Ray warns that using a Facebook application can give broad permission for whoever developed that application to access your data ... and your friends' data.

That means you may want to think twice before you take quizzes with titles like "Would you make a good FBI agent?" or "What's the theme song to your high school years?"

Only use applications from sources you trust, Ray added. And periodically check the list of applications you've used and given permissions to. "You might be surprised how many you've approved," he said. "Much like your PC, you probably want to regularly remove any applications you don't use and trust."

Ray advised users to go to the bottom of Facebook's Privacy Settings page to find the "Applications and Websites" link. There, they can click on the "Remove unwanted or spammy applications" option.

4. Ummm, sorry Grandma! Think before you type

You have to protect yourself and think through every post that you put online. The golden rule, say several analysts, is to think about whether you want your mother, your boss (and any potential future bosses) and your significant other to read what you're about to write. If you don't want any of them to see it, don't post it.

It's a simple concept, but people still just don't get it, said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group.

"It's so important for users to realize that when they post personal details on social networking sites, they have to assume that information could be exposed to everyone with a computer and a screen," Olds added.

"One approach is to ask yourself if you'd wear a T-shirt with the details you've posted about yourself. If you would, then you're probably OK. But if that thought makes you cringe, then you'd better re-evaluate what you're putting on the Web," he said.

5. Malicious eyes

Sit down and closely look at your Facebook page and consider what a malicious person could do with any of the information you've posted.

"Try to be objective and ask yourself, 'If I really hated this person or wanted to take advantage of her, is there anything I could do with this information to mess with her?'" said Olds. "If the answer is yes, then consider what kinds of information you're posting on your Facebook page and make the appropriate adjustments."

Analysts also warned users to not post any information that could be used in an identity theft scheme. Avoid listing your birth date, home address, children's names, phone numbers and social security numbers.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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