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Privacy concerns drive 1 in 4 Facebook users to lie

Monday - 5/7/2012, 1:30pm  ET

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Almost 13 million users say they have never set or didn't know about privacy controls on Facebook, according to Consumer Reports. (AP)

Megan Cloherty, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - One in four Facebook users admit they don't tell the whole truth on their profiles. But their lies are not over relationships and status updates. Users say they're lying to protect their privacy.

Consumer Reports' investigation "Facebook & Your Privacy" focuses on the ways people use social networking to share information, and what happens to that information after it's posted.

How users over-share on Facebook

  • Personal information: It's estimated that 4.8 million users have shared travel plans, giving a tip to would-be burglars. Others have liked a Facebook page about specific health conditions or treatments. More than 2 million people "liked" a page regarding sexual orientation, 20.4 million users include their birth date year in their profile, while 930,000 users discussed their finances on their wall.

  • Privacy controls: Almost 13 million users say they have never set or didn't know about privacy controls on Facebook. And 28 percent shared all or almost all of their wall posts accessible to the entire network, an audience far beyond just their friends.

  • Photos: When a photo is uploaded to Facebook, the user putting it online determines its privacy restrictions. So users tagged in a photo have no right to how that photo is shared. On its help center page, Facebook states, "If other people are able to view photos you are tagged in, then it is because the owner of the photos has most likely set the privacy of the photo album so that everyone can see the photos in it."

  • Apps: Whenever a user runs an app on their page, it collects public information such as name, gender and profile photo. But many also collect a list of the user's friends even if it is not public. If the user grants wider permissions to the app, they can "peer deeper into your data and even see information that your friends share with you," according to the report.

Facebook collects more data than most users realize. Every time a user visits a site with a Facebook "like" button, the site knows about their actions. Their "likes" are tracked, even if the user is not a Facebook member or isn't logged in.

Andrew Noyes, Facebook's manager of public policy communications, says privacy and security are top priorities of the company. CEO Mark Zuckerburg wrote a blog about the topic last year saying, "We do privacy checks literally tens of billions of times each day to ensure we're enforcing that only the people you want to see your content." If users have never looked it it, they can find Facebook's data use policy here.

Facebook says it will soon give users access to:

  • Time and date of log-ins
  • IP address used for each session
  • Friend requests each user has made
  • Facial recognition data
  • Previous names used
  • Users' searchers and page views within Facebook
  • "Poke" information
-according to Consumer Reports

The Consumer Reports survey polled 2,000 households, in which 25 percent of users say they lied on their profiles to protect their identity. That number is up 10 percent from a similar survey two years ago.

Almost 15 million households have been the victim of identity theft over the past year, based on the survey. Almost half of the them had their personal information compromised when a company, government agency or organization lost or mishandled it. That number of victims is more than double what Consumer Reports projected in 2011.

"Do Not Track" initiative gains support

The White House is proposing a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, giving consumers the right to approve what personal data a company collects.

The administration is also looking for support from companies for "Do Not Track" tools consumers can use on browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer.

The grim trend looks like it will continue, especially given the recent report by major credit card processor, Global Payments, that hackers broke into its computer systems, stealing information in 1.5 million accounts. The company serves major credit cards worldwide.

This evidence of online vulnerabilities comes at a time when Internet kings like Facebook and Google are facing scrutiny for collecting data that critics say could violate consumer privacy. Both companies have settled allegations with the Federal Trade Commission, which will require them to undergo privacy audits for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, lawmakers are looking at increasing online privacy rules, giving consumers more control over how their information is used.

Facebook is being used by companies to find employees, by job seekers to find jobs and network online. Experts say it has already become a real player in the job market.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)