Facebook privacy: Users should check these settings as new changes roll out

October 11, 2013

Facebook users may be wary after hearing that the social network is following up on a promise to cut a privacy setting that kept user names out of the social network’s graph search.

Here’s a quick guide to what changes are coming and which settings to review as they hit users’ accounts.

What’s disappearing? The social network announced in December that it was retiring the option for users to control whether they show up when others type their name into the search bar, but said Thursday that it would finally be notifying those who use it that the setting will be removed. The option, which shows up in privacy settings as “Who can look up your timeline by name?” was already cut for people who weren’t using it.

How was that setting useful? It wasn’t perfect. It would not have stopped, for example, Facebook users from being able to access those protected profiles if those users had been tagged in a public post or picture. Still, it did help those users to keep a lower profile on the social network, such as those trying to hide their profiles from abusive ex-partners or harassment.

For those who chose that option— a “small percentage” of its users, Facebook says -- the change now allows anyone to type those names into Facebook’s search engines to see their profiles.

Can I replicate that option with other tools?: No. The main feature of the setting was that people wouldn’t be able to find a user by name in the search bar. There appears to be no way to keep that function. But there are still some setting that can lower a profile on the site.

Facebook is trying to encourage people to control their privacy on an item-by-item basis. So, whenever and however you post, you should be checking to see if what you’re putting up is for public view or just for friends or specific lists of friends. Also, consider turning on Timeline approval, which shows you what your friends may be posting about your location or whom you’re with. You can ask them to remove your name from those posts. Facebook has settings that let you review posts and photo tags before they’re posted to your Timeline. If privacy is a major concern, use these tools and don’t hesitate to ask other users to remove posts about you that make you uncomfortable.

It’s also a good idea to create group lists of friends so that you can share some posts exclusively with certain lists and exclude other groups from seeing those posts. That’s particularly important if you spend a lot of time on Facebook’s mobile app, where privacy tools can be harder to finesse.

What else can I do for privacy? Another key option in the privacy settings menu is one lets users disable your search engines from linking to their timelines. That will at least cut down on the chance that someone looking for you outside the social network will be able to find your profile.

If your whereabouts or similar information are sensitive, particularly if it’s a safety issue, you should be very aware of locations on your posts — no check-ins — and be careful about writing posts that give clues about where you are.

Users should also remember that they can also always block specific users from seeing their Facebook page or from contacting them, but this is more of a reactive step than a proactive one. Plus, just as you could alter your name (yes, in violation of Facebook’s guidelines) to hide your identity, so could anyone who is looking for you.

If you’re concerned about past posts, Facebook has a setting that lets you limit the audience for posts and information that are already on your profile. You can also go to the “Activity Log” on your timeline to get an action-by-action view of how your activity shows up on the site.

And finally, as Facebook itself makes clear, remember that “things you hide from your timeline still appear in news feed, search and other places on Facebook.” There include some things you just can’t hide, namely profile pictures and cover photos, but also some news feed activity.

There’s been much discussion over how much social networks should expect users to fine-tune their settings in order to hit the levels of privacy that they want. Facebook has been evolving its settings to be more granular — which can be good for thinking about privacy at a more real-time pace. But it also means that it requires those for whom privacy is a major concern to set broader controls.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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