March 18, 2013, 6:53 AM — Are you worried about Facebook being a privacy invader? Join the club.
The information Facebook gathers about its users -- not to mention the information people make available about themselves -- can make their lives an open book, offering details about their families, their interests, their habits, their likes and dislikes and personal photos. People are also worried about the possibility that Facebook can track their travels on the Web or that their information can be shared with advertisers for ad-targeting purposes.
Making matters worse is Facebook's constantly changing privacy policies and settings. In December 2012, Facebook changed its policies and settings yet again, causing not a little backlash from users. As a result, even if you had previously customized the settings the way you liked them, you had to go back in and edit them again. And trying to understand Facebook's privacy settings and fine-tuning them can be a difficult task.
Luckily, there are a number of free apps out there that can help you check the state of your Facebook privacy and make changes to them. In some instances, the app will simply inform you about the status of your Facebook privacy so you can make changes on your own; others can guide you through making those changes.
No matter how you use them, though, if you're worried about your privacy on Facebook, you'll want to check them out.
A couple of cautionary notes: First, since many of the apps listed here are only available on Facebook, you will need to be signed in to the service to access them.
And keep in mind that whenever you give access to your Facebook data to a third party, you need to read the privacy information it provides and gauge whether you feel it is a reputable company.
Once you're logged into Facebook, it knows which other websites you're browsing. How? Via the Facebook Connect service.
Facebook Connect sends information about the sites you visit back to Facebook. That's why, at many websites, you'll see comments that friends of yours have made there, or see their activity -- you have Facebook Connect to thank for that.
If this tracking bothers you, there's a way to turn it off -- get the free Facebook Disconnect add-on for Chrome, Firefox or Safari. After you install it, Disconnect blocks Facebook Connect from tracking you, but you'll still be able to use Facebook. And when you visit Web pages, you won't see traces of your friends, or the ubiquitous Facebook Like button sprinkled seemingly all over the Web.
Once installed, Facebook Disconnect invisibly blocks Facebook Connect from tracking you.
In beta: McAfee Social Protection
McAfee Social Protection places an additional layer of protection around your Facebook photos. Once installed -- it's both a Facebook app and a browser plugin -- it allows you to share photo galleries in a more closely guarded way than with normal Facebook permissions.
(Note: Because Social Protection is in beta; it can be used only by computers running Windows 7 Home Premium Edition or higher along with Firefox 8.0 or higher, Internet Explorer 8.0 or higher, or Chrome.)
Photo galleries protected by Social Protection can be viewed only by other users with Social Protection installed -- and, what's more, the photos can't be printed, copied using a right-click or captured with the Print Screen key.
McAfee Social Protection warns users that protected photos can't be copied.
The process of creating a protected album is a little inflexible. You have to upload any photos you wanted protected through the Social Protection app; you can't take an existing Facebook photo album and protect it. Protection for images is pretty thorough, though: Screen captures simply show a black rectangle where the browser window would be and the source code for the page appears to be heavily obscured, making it difficult to harvest the image that way.
Social Protection uses features of the Windows Aero subsystem to protect images from being copied. If you disable Aero or access the desktop via a remote-login system (such as LogMeIn ) that doesn't use Aero, the app displays a note to this effect and refuses to load the galleries at all.
McAfee has also introduced a standalone Android app that lets you browse protected galleries and upload photos -- from your phone's camera or its library -- into new or existing protected galleries.
While the basic idea does work, this is still definitely a beta: After browsing a protected gallery, I occasionally had a little window that didn't seem attached to any application pop up on the desktop. (It disappeared after I closed the browser.) So while Social Protection looks like it may be an interesting app, especially for photographers who upload to Facebook, you may want to wait until it's a bit more polished.
Some of the biggest threats to your privacy on Facebook don't necessarily have anything to do with your settings. They can be malicious links posted on your newsfeed. That's where this app comes in.
Norton Safe Web scans all of the links on your newsfeed and reports on the safety of each using four levels of security: Norton Secured, Safe, Caution and Warning.
Norton Secured sites have been issued SSL certificates from VeriSign, the authentication service owned by Symantic. Safe sites have been checked out by Norton and found to be safe, but don't have SSL certificates.
Norton Safe Web scans all of the links on your newsfeed and reports on the safety of each.
A site listed with a Caution has some potential threats; one with a Warning has more. For every tested link, you can click to a Web page to see Norton's Safe Web report about it, which includes details about any associated threats, including overall threats to your computer, identity threats or simple annoyances. There are some links Norton apparently hasn't gotten to yet; these are rated as Untested.
If the associated site is problematic, there's plenty of granular data on the Safe Web report, such as specific viruses, worms or spyware that have been found on the site, suspicious applications that it's linked to and more.
This free add-on for Firefox and Chrome is an excellent, simple way to see all the privacy implications of your Facebook use -- and to fix any of the settings you'd like.
The installed app puts a Privacyfix button on your browser's bookmarks bar. Click it (first making sure you're logged into Facebook), and you'll be presented with a screen full of privacy-related information, such as whether non-friends can see likes and posts, whether your likes can be used for ads, whether your profile is indexed in Google, whether your profile information is shared when you visit websites and much more. It even tells you how much money you're worth to Facebook (based on your Facebook use) and what percentage of the websites you visit are tracked by Facebook.
Privacyfix offers a thorough report on your Facebook settings and offers a way to fix them.
Privacyfix does more than that, though. The real power of this excellent add-on is that it will fix your privacy settings if you want it to. Each setting that can be tweaked to provide greater privacy has a button with the word "Fix" -- click on the button and it sends you to the appropriate Facebook settings screen, along with instructions about how to make the change. Any setting that is already fully protected has the word Fixed next to it. After you fix a setting, it changes from Fix to Fixed.
Privacyfix protects your privacy for other sites as well; for example, it shows which sites and/or ad companies are tracking you. Click on the company's icon, and you can access a variety of information about that company, including a rating of how concerned you should be.
Finally, if you click the Privacyfix button when you're on any website, the app shows you general privacy policies and concerns related to that site, including whether private information is generally shared with other sites.
Here's another free way to check for potential privacy problems with your Facebook account.
Once you've logged in to Secure.me and connected it to your Facebook account, you'll be sent to a page called the Dashboard, where you can see a summary of your all scans and other Secure.me activities.
Secure.me scans your Facebook posts for the last 7, 30 or 90 days, depending on your preference, and reports not just on privacy but other threats as well. It divides these reports into three major categories: Privacy (which checks whether you've revealed any personal information, such as your hometown, workplace or the names of family members), Profile (which checks whether your posts are being created by apps, under the theory that they might be malware) and Network (which checks your network of friends on Facebook to see if they have posted "questionable posts" with problems such as potentially harmful links).
Then, using a sort of "thermometer" icon, Secure.me ranks you on 1 to 10 point scale, with 1 being the most dangerous and 10 being the least. It also color-codes rankings: red for dangerous, orange for a middling ranking and green for safe.
Secure.me ranks your Facebook privacy on a scale of 1 to 10.
Above each "thermometer," Secure.me tells you the number of threats to your privacy. You can click on that number to see details about the danger, as well as advice about how to fix it. For example, in the Privacy analysis, it let you know if your Facebook Profile includes your marital status, names of your children, workplace and educational background. For each threat, it gives advice and links to Privacy settings you may want to change.
All this sounds good, but I found a few shortcomings. For example, in its Profile analysis, Secure.me lists Facebook posts as "questionable" if they've been posted by an app -- but many people use apps to post to Facebook, and most of them are not privacy invading or created by malware.
Even less useful is a feature called a Profile mood, which is part of the Profile analysis and purports to analyze whether your posts as a whole are negative, neutral or positive. I didn't find that the results at all echoed my general mood (which Secure.me ranked as "positive").
Note, by the way, that you can scan your children's profiles as well as your own by putting in their passwords -- assuming you have them.
Worried that you've posted objectionable content on Facebook? This free service claims to solve the problem.
Head over to SimpleWash, give it access to Facebook (after the usual app warning), and you're sent to the SimpleWash website, with your Facebook picture in the upper left corner. Click Start and it shows you any objectionable content you've posted, liked or linked to, such as curse words or drug-related words like "smoke."
It's quite a Puritanical little app and goes beyond warning about the usual four-letter expletives. For example, a Computerworld editor who is a birdwatcher had a photo tagged because it contained the word "swallow." If you wish, you can even add words of your own for which the app will scan.
SimpleWash judged this Facebook entry questionable because it contained the word "swallow."
You'll have to do any cleaning up yourself. Click the link to the objectionable content, and you can do whatever needs to be done from there, such as edit the post or remove your "like" from it.
Not being particularly fussy (or a user of four-letter words online), I found this app less than useful. However, if you're a victim of accidental potty mouth or want to make sure your online presence is squeaky clean, you may want to give it a try.
This simple-to-use Facebook app does exactly what it says -- it scans your Facebook use and privacy settings, reports on whether your privacy is being invaded and, if it is, shows ways in which you can improve your privacy settings.
After the usual notification asking if you want to give the app access to your Facebook account, Privacy Scan shows its results after a few moments, based on your past month of Facebook use. It tells you whether your public posts are visible to everyone, friends of friends or just friends and whether any posts were tagged in the past month; you'll also get a score (ranging from 0 to 100) for your "privacy awareness" based on your Facebook privacy settings.
ZoneAlarm Privacy Scan scores how private your Facebook account is.
Based on that and on several other factors (whether you've made posts that are visible to everyone, whether your posts are visible to friends of friends and whether you were tagged in any posts), you get an overall privacy "Final Grade." In addition, you see a rundown on Facebook statistics of how many posts, likes, shares and comments you made per month.
There's one drawback to this app: It doesn't actually make any recommendations about how to improve your Facebook privacy based on what it finds out about your Facebook settings. However, if you click the "Score higher and gain more privacy" button at the bottom of the screen, you'll be sent to a page with overall tips on how to increase your privacy on Facebook. That's not as good as customized recommendations based on your Facebook usage (such as those provided by Privacyfix and Secure.me), but still, it's useful.
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 45 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O'Reilly, 2012). See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.
Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.