It comes as no surprise that it’s more difficult to protect your personal privacy and information online. Everyday more loopholes are discovered making names, interests, friends and preferences easily accessible to the public. Here at Greenough, we recently discovered Spokeo, a site which aggregates your personal information from various places and presents it in a somewhat creepy, intrusive way. Fortunately, as even moderately-savvy Internet users know, if you use privacy settings, block spam and avoid giving away personal information, your personal privacy will remain intact. Think again.

Thanks to Facebook and bold changes it has made in the past few months, we can kiss controlled privacy preferences goodbye (see my colleague Chantal’s post entitled “Has Facebook Gone Too Far?” from last week). In short, the changes now allow more personal information such as relationship status, hometown, and hobbies to be shared publicly without any formal consent from users.

In 2005, Facebook was created as a network for people to connect and share information with a group of their choice. Privacy settings were strict and unless you agreed to minimal restriction, your personal information remained free from the public domain. Three years ago, Facebook’s privacy policy slowly began to evolve, making an increasing amount of personal information available to the public including name, school name, profile picture and specified local area. Fast-forward to today and, as a result of the most recent changes, Facebook now allows private information to be public without the knowledge of the user and with (more or less) no choice in the matter.

Does joining Facebook mean agreeing to a significantly comprised level of privacy?

Facebook currently has over 400 million users and it is clear this question has become a hot button for many of them. Most of those users joined Facebook with the assumption that their personal information would remain exactly that, personal. However, we’ve seen Facebook’s strict privacy policy dissolve into one that allows opportunities for monetary gain and information tracking and management. It’s now so convoluted that most users are unable to keep it all straight, and as a result, expose far more personal information than intended.

Below is an illustration by Matt McKeon of IBM Research's Center for Social Software, describing the evolution of the Facebook privacy policy since its creation in 2005. Accompanied by his illustrations are the corresponding Facebook privacy policies for those time periods quoted directly from the Facebook website.

Facebook Privacy Policy circa 2005:

“No personal information that you submit to The Facebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings”

Facebook Privacy Policy as of April 2010:

“When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information about you. The term General Information includes your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting. … The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to ‘everyone.’ …Because it takes two to connect, your privacy settings only control who can see the connection on your profile page. If you are uncomfortable with the connection being publicly available, you should consider removing (or not making) the connection.”

Changes over the last few months demonstrate the Facebook shows little concern for the strengthening its privacy policy. Recently, Facebook has been encouraging users to make information such as photos and interests available to everyone on the internet.

Additionally, users were being asked to link personal information in their profiles in such a way that would make the information completely available to the public. It is important that as user we are aware and educated about the changes affecting our personal privacy. Facebook can be an excellent networking and social media tool, yet if we as users are not careful enough to regulate our own personal information there is potential for misuse of some of our most sensitive information.

For additional reading on this issue, check out these articles:

Electronic Frontier Federation: Facebook's Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline
The New York Times’ Bits Blog: Facebook Executive Answers Reader Questions
WIRED: Facebook’s Gone Rogue; It’s Time for an Open Alternative

– Contributed by Madeline Koessler. Follow her @mkoessler