Today Facebook announced that they now have over 500 million users, and founder Mark Zuckerberg has predicted the site will eventually surpass one billion- that means that one out of every six people in the world will have a profile on the site.
500 million profiles means Facebook is extremely popular, and it also means they have access to an enormous amount of your personal information ranging from birthdays and addresses to interests, job histories, romantic statuses, and sexual orientations.
Yesterday Newsweek, prompted by the site’s approaching membership milestone, wrote an article outlining some of the dangers that this degree of information sharing can bring. Entitled “10 Ways Facebook Can Ruin Your Life,” it includes problems like “2. Your creditors can track you down,” and “4. Your ex can use it against you in a divorce.” Others, like “5. It could make you depressed” seem less catastrophic, but they’ve managed to dig up some horror stories…
“So what? I’m not in debt/unfaithful/adopted/depressed!”
All in all, you might come away from the article thinking, “yeah, Facebook can be dangerous if I’m not smart about how I use it, but as long as I’m not stupid I’ll be OK.” And that’s where Newsweek misses the point. Facebook photos, wall posts, and other personal information are just begging to be taken out of context; even if you have done nothing wrong you could still get into trouble, especially in cases when you do not have a chance to explain yourself.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
According to the Telegraph article cited by Newsweek, half of British employers turned down job applicants based on the applicants’ Facebook profiles. While in some cases these actions were probably legitimate, it is also quite likely that many of these rejections were based on things like sexual orientation or political affiliation. Worse, those assessments might not even be accurate! Someone whose interests include Fox News and Glenn Beck is not necessarily a political conservative but will undoubtedly be perceived as such by anyone viewing his profile. A picture with a platonic friend can be taken as evidence of infidelity. Sarcastic or facetious comments can be interpreted literally.
What can you do about it?
So, what can you do to protect yourself? The first step is to make sure you don’t have anything incriminating or unflattering on your profile. The second step is to make sure you don’t have anything that anyone could perceive as incriminating or unflattering. Basically, “don’t be stupid” combined with “people make unfair assumptions.”
However, if you really want to be completely secure, the only 100% effective solution is to delete your profile completely. Unfortunately, since Facebook makes money by selling advertising, they don’t want you to go. So they make it very confusing to actually delete a profile. Luckily, there are some resources available: Abine’s DeleteMe Service will take care of it for you for a small fee, and a Google search will return plenty of tutorials if you want to do it yourself.
As Facebook passes the half-billion-user mark, take a moment to think about what you’re sharing with them and what they’re sharing with the world. You might decide you care about your privacy a little more than Mark Zuckerberg does.