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Thirteen million people do not use or pay attention to their privacy settings on Facebook, according to a study by Consumer Reports today. And while Consumer Reports is a bit alarmed by Americans’ tendency to over-share on the social network, it’s worth remembering that’s this number is only a whopping 1.4 percent of Facebook’s 900 million active users. Even considering only the 150 million Americans who use Facebook, that’s still just 8.7 percent.

Rather than be alarmed, we should be impressed by how many people actually use Facebook’s privacy settings.

Consumer Reports’ study took a look at Facebook’s privacy settings, how many people actually use them, as well as how people are sharing information. The magazine surveyed 2,002 U.S. households, 1,340 of which are active on Facebook, to find its results, then extrapolated to the entire U.S. population of Facebook. Those results include information on people sharing data more widely than expected, Facebook collecting more data than people realize, and people simply not using Facebook’s privacy controls.


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“Consumer Reports completely missed the big issue,” said Jules Polonetsky, Director of the Future of Privacy Forum, in an interview with VentureBeat. “I expected Consumer Reports to focus on things like how useable are the privacy settings on Facebook versus other services, are apps taking more info than they should… It was surprising to see a very generally negative view toward social media.”

The “negative view” Polonetsky is referencing is Consumer Reports’ stance that we are sharing too much, and that social networks have become an arena for Big Brother (it specifically mentions the IRS, insurers and employers) to harvest more information about us. The stat that people seem to be hanging on to, though, is that 13 million Americans don’t even use Facebook’s privacy settings, which could help them protect yourselves from prying eyes.

Of course, “13 million people” isn’t anything to shake a stick at. Those are all individuals, they all have lives, they all can be adversely affected by sharing on social networks. Consumer Reports says these millions either weren’t made aware of Facebook’s privacy settings, or haven’t used them, the latter of which completely makes sense.

Polonetsky brought up the studies of Alan Westin, who researched privacy and the way people share their data in the 1960s and 1970s. Westin concluded that people fall into a few camps: “privacy pragmatists,” those who care about their privacy, and those who don’t.

“Ten to fifteen percent don’t care, won’t care,” said Polonetsky. “These are the people who will let it all hang out.”

It’d be presumptuous to assume all 13 million people who don’t use Facebook’s privacy settings simply don’t pay attention. But, as Polonetsky explained, for years privacy experts tried to convince people to use browser-cookie privacy settings, and even after years many people still can’t be bothered. You’re not going to be able to reach every user.

There are areas of the Consumer Reports study that bring up valid concerns, however. Social sharing is still muddy. When you share with “friends of friends,” people often don’t realize just how far that network stretches. According to the report, 28 percent of Facebook users shared all of the information on their Facebook profiles with more than just friends. You could be sharing a photo of you and a buddy in bikinis with tens of thousands of people.

Fortunately, there’s a simple answer to that: Don’t let your friends’ friends see that photo. Use the tools that Facebook provides to prevent unwanted eyeballs from getting to your content.

The Consumer Reports study also mentions that only 37 percent of individuals say they’ve used Facebook’s app privacy settings. Apps are also a bit unclear. At the top of the apps page, it states that apps overall have default access to your, “name, profile picture, gender, networks, username and user ID (account number)… friends list and any information you choose to make public.”

But while you can control the apps you install, there’s no comprehensive list of apps your friends are using that also access your information. Perhaps that’s because the list would be too expansive. Instead, you can control friends’ apps through the “how people bring your info to apps they use” tab.

The point is, there are more important questions to be asked here than “should I put this on Facebook?” Because if you’re asking that question, the answer is always no. Instead, we need to be looking at which social networks give you the best control or how much information apps are taking.

“We believe more than 900 million consumers have voluntarily decided to share and connect on Facebook because we provide them options and tools that place them in control of their information and experience,” said Facebook in an e-mailed statement. “As part of our effort to empower and educate consumers, we always welcome constructive conversations about online privacy and safety.”

Zuckerberg image via Crunchies2009/Flickr

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