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By  CMG  •  Posted on  September 1, 2011

Dear Jean: How can I make my Facebook account as private as possible?

Whether you work on air or behind the scenes, it’s important to know exactly how public all of the things you do on the internet are. It has become common practice for potential employers to Google applicants. Various levels of law enforcement and CSIS routinely monitor Facebook, including as part of the ongoing surveillance of activists engaged in purely legal dissent. And everyone has a story about their weird aunt or friend from high school who posted a truly embarrassing picture of something you did 20 years ago. Not all of the things we do are really meant for public consumption, but there are a lot of reasons to use Facebook. It’s in your interest to control the information that’s out in the world about you.

The most important thing you should know about posting status updates, links, photos, and video on Facebook is that your posts are potentially visible to every person on the internet.

Managing who can see your posts is actually pretty easy if you’re posting from a computer. When you click on the box that says “What’s on your mind?” and start typing, the box expands. Directly to the left of the “Post” button is a drop-down menu where you can select the audience for your post. The top two selections are pretty self-explanatory. “Public” is anyone with an internet connection. “Friends” is everyone on your friends list. After that, you see “Custom,” which is a really useful tool. This allows you to define exactly who is allowed to see a post. Mine, for example, is almost always set to “Friends, except Limited Profile,” where Limited Profile is a list I’ve made of people with whom I want to be Facebook friends, but not with whom I want to share reports about whether my cat is using the litter box effectively. You can also make it even more selective, listing the names of people you want to see, or not see, the post.

And whether or not you have a Limited Profile list, Facebook has attempted to create lists for you, below the Custom setting. As a default, everyone has the following lists: Close Friends, Family, and Acquaintances. You may also have a list for school friends and your current city. You can have a photo or status update available only to one group of people, or use them under custom, (e.g., have a post go to all friends in Toronto except acquaintances, all close friends except family, etc.)

These lists are a really helpful way of organizing your friends (if you can get over how creepy it is that Facebook has attempted to pre-sort your lists for you based on how often you interact with someone over the internet). There are a few ways to populate your lists. One is by going to the left side of your profile and clicking “Lists.” Facebook has created several lists for you already, and you can make more here if you want. Click on a list, and Facebook will make suggestions for you. You can also type in names of individual friends. If you’ve felt pressured to “friend” your boss, you might want to put her onto the “Restricted” list. Another way to add people to lists is to go to your friends list and going through each person to add them to whichever lists are appropriate. If you want to create additional lists, you can do that on your lists page. For example, you might want lists for work, friends you play sports with, your book club, other parents, and fellow Star Trek conventioneers. This way, if you want to keep pictures of yourself from your friend’s Star Trek theme wedding out of the workplace, it’s fairly easy to do so, and you can limit discussion of your newborn’s eating habits to those people you know who have an opinion on mushy peas.

If selecting an audience post by post is too much work, you can also set your default setting by going to Privacy Settings under the down arrow at the top right. You can also click on “Manage Past Post Visibility” to limit the audience of all past posts you’ve made public.
Another good thing to know is that you can control what other people can post on your wall. Under Privacy Settings, then How You Connect, there is a way to control who posts on your wall, which you can set to either “Friends” or “Only Me.” Also under Privacy Settings, click How Tags Work and turn on Profile Review to require your approval before someone tags a picture or post with your name. Selecting Tag Review makes it so you have to approve any tags another person puts on your photos.

You may want to limit the people that can find you and ask to friend you. Under How You Connect, you can limit who can send you messages, who can ask to add you as a friend, and even who can look you up by name or email address.

Finally, now that Facebook is integrating with various external sites and getting “likes” is a part of marketing strategy for lots of products and websites, it’s pretty important to be able to control what Facebook is telling partner sites about your internet life. Unless you have an active Farmville life or are regularly using other apps, you should probably select the box that turns off all platform apps. This prevents information about you from leaking out to partner websites. In this same section of your privacy settings, you can disable Public Search if you haven’t already limited the way people can find you. This makes it so that information about you isn’t visible to search engines.

If this isn’t enough for you, you may want to consider setting up a public, professional profile for work purposes and a private profile for use with your friends. Some friends of mine actually have Facebook accounts using their middle names, their pet’s name, or a name they made up entirely. However you decide to do it, make sure you’re aware of how much information about you is visible publicly, and be careful what you post. Several workers in the Canada and the U.S. have been disciplined or fired for activity on Facebook. While some of them have been reinstated, it is still far from clear what the rules are in this new territory, so it’s best to be aware how far your information is traveling and be careful what you post. The Guild has begun a series of tips for using social media. You can find more information here.

Jean Broughton is a staff representative at CMG.

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