Consumer Reports: Half of Social Network Users are “Oversharing,” Endangering Privacy

Consumer Reports, a longtime trusted name in product ratings and reviews, has today released its annual “State of the Net” report, which finds that over half (52%) of social network users post risky information online. Among the transgressions: using weak passwords, listing full birth dates, ignoring privacy settings and making mention of when you’re away from home, to name a few.

The report looked closely at Facebook and Twitter, two of the top social networks used today, and found that on Facebook, the percentage of those engaged in this type of risky behavior was even higher, at 56%. However, what’s more interesting is how the survey inadvertently reveals that Facebook users clearly have no idea about how much they’re publicly sharing on the network.

Consumer Reports Tells Facebook Users What to Do

The study looked at a representative group of 2,000 online households in the U.S. during the month of January. Within this sampling, 9% of social network users had been the victim of some form of online abuse in the past year like malware infections, scams, identity theft or harassment.

Those who “overshare” online – posting personal information like full names, children’s names, home addresses and details about when they’re away from home – are “especially vulnerable,” notes the report.

To counteract these dangers, Consumer Reports made the following seven suggestions of things you should stop doing on Facebook:

  1. Using a weak password
  2. Listing a full birth date
  3. Overlooking privacy controls
  4. Posting a child’s name in a caption
  5. Mentioning being away from home
  6. Letting yourself be found by a search engine
  7. Permitting youngsters to use Facebook unsupervised

Poor Privacy Settings at Fault, Not Mindless Online Behavior

Some of those suggestions are common sense (or just good parenting), but the tone of the report sometimes feels a bit over the top. It suggests, for example, that posting your children’s pictures is, in and of itself, risky online behavior. But what are social networks for, anyway, if not for sharing Junior’s latest with Grandma?

The problem with this report is that it acts as if the burden of online safety should be entirely placed upon social networking users. While there are some obvious areas where people need to think smarter, some of the real issues regarding these networks are being ignored.

With social networks – Facebook in particular – privacy settings are too often obscured or are confusing and so therefore are generally overlooked by the majority of a social network’s users. To make matters worse (in terms of privacy, that is), the default setting on nearly every social network is “public.” Whether you’re uploading photos to Flickr, sharing videos on YouTube, or updating your status on Twitter and Facebook, the networks are designed with the idea that you’re doing so to share with world, not a closed set of family and friends.

In many cases, this is understood: YouTube, after all, is a video sharing portal, not a private network. But the problem with Facebook is that it used to operate differently. Originally positioned as a more-private network, the recent changes there have dramatically reversed its course – so much so that U.S. senators are now investigating its new policies, while others are calling Facebook’s data-sharing plans a “bait-and-switch.”

In others words, it’s not just the users themselves who are to blame for this “risky” online behavior. The networks have been created so that risk is a factor built into every sharing feature. Facebook especially is now exploiting its earlier, implicit agreement between itself and its users so that people are publicly sharing what they think is private information.

Survey Shows Facebook Users are Clearly Confused

Something else we found decidedly telling regarding this issue is the fact that the reports states 73% of adult Facebook users only shared content with friends but only 42% of users said they customized their privacy settings.

These numbers clearly show the study’s flaws. You can’t just ask Facebook users about their privacy: They’re uninformed.

In December, Facebook made sweeping changes to their default settings, prompting users to accept the new recommended settings or edit those settings to their liking. Those who took Facebook’s recommendations without making any changes immediately began sharing status updates, photos, videos and links publicly, likely without realizing they had done so.

That means that a good many of the 73% of Facebook adults who think they’re sharing just with friends are sadly mistaken. Only those in the 42% who customized their settings (hopefully properly) are actually restricting their content from public view.

Other Figures

There are some other figures in this report, summarized below, that may be of interest, but you have to take them with a grain of salt. This (and similar studies) can’t truly paint an accurate picture if they rely on users to respond to questions instead of analyzing data at the source itself.

  • 73% only shared their Facebook content with friends
  • 42% customized settings to control who can see their information
  • 22% customized what personal information can be accessed by apps
  • 18% customized settings to control who can find a user’s page through a search
  • 11% only shared content with friends, and friends of friends
  • 10% altered some personally identifiable information to protect their identity

Facebook Applications

  • 39% of Facebook users surveyed reported that they use apps
  • 10% of Facebook users were confident that they are secure
  • 27% believed that some apps are more secure than others
  • 28% believed that all apps pose some security threats
  • 35% hadn’t given much thought to the security of apps

Protecting Privacy on Twitter

  • 34% of Twitter users surveyed said they only make their tweets available to followers
  • 27% said they check out pages of new followers that they don’t know personally
  • 24% said they block all new followers that they don’t know personally
  • 12% said they research new followers on Google or other search engine
  • 5% asked others about new followers they didn’t know personally
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