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Privacy on Facebook

Facebook’s new “instant personalization” feature is sharing supposedly private information with third-party developers without users’ permission. Here’s what you can — and can’t — do about it.

1. Online privacy is an illusion.

Everyone, from the ACLU and U.S. senators to 72,000 people and counting in the “Facebook, stop invading my privacy!” group is saying that Facebook’s privacy policies need to be more transparent.

But the Internet is a public place, and federal guidelines protecting social networking users from privacy violations are nonexistent. Facebook has been chipping away at the illusion of privacy for years. Is it unethical? Perhaps. But Facebook is a business, so caveat emptor. As Dan Yoder writes on Gizmodo, “They owe us nothing.”

2. Instant personalization is big bucks.

Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed, “We are building a Web where the default is social.” The interests you list, the community pages you join and the things you “like” on Facebook are now aggregated into its new Open Graph API, which allows selected third-party partners like Yelp to access your private data and use it to develop applications.

The result is a web-wide taxonomy where Facebook users are, unbeknownst to themselves, offering themselves up for free as marketing data. With more than 400 million users, Facebook is the Internet’s biggest crowd-sourcing success. Data mining of social networks translates to a goldmine not only for advertisers, but potentially for any curious entity.

3. It didn’t happen yesterday.

Since last December, information like your gender or list of friends was all deemed publicly available, with no option to opt out of being part of the API. Previously, application developers could store your data up to 24 hours. But this limitation was lifted last month. Now, when you install an application like Farmville or a take a quiz, all of your data, from the event you RSVP-ed to last summer to your hometown and favorite movies, is free game.

Take a look at this timeline from the Electronic Frontier Foundation about Facebook’s gradually eroding privacy policies. The site’s come a long way since its 2004 inception in a college dorm room.

4. The truth is hard to find.

Facebook isn’t making it easy for users to find out the truth, and that’s perhaps its biggest failing. A December 2009 letter from Zuckerberg said that Facebook was fulfilling a popular request to simplify privacy settings. But the privacy controls actually got more complicated. It now takes 50 clicks to get your profile down to its bare bones. Same with last month’s announcement that couches the sharing of social plug-in data in the more cuddly language of “experienc[ing] the web with your friends.”

But while Facebook talks a big game about privacy, is this just lip service?

Yoder calls it a bait-and-switch: “Facebook gets you to share information that you might not otherwise share, and then they make it publicly available. Since they are in the business of monetizing information about you for advertising purposes, this amounts to tricking their users into giving advertisers information about themselves.”

5. How to opt out.

The easiest way: Delete your account. But if you’re not willing to go cold turkey, at least minimize your applications. Here’s how.

Follow these instructions to just say no to instant personalization.

The bottom line is, you probably shouldn’t post anything on the Internet that you don’t want on the Internet. And don’t expect companies to have your best interest in mind.