Latest Facebook changes not a huge blow to privacy, say experts

Unlike in past updates, privacy settings will remain intact and don't require a reset on Facebook, though the push to share more and more personal information remains troubling to some privacy watchers

Facebook's Monday launch of a new profile layout is not receiving the same kind of negative reactions from privacy experts that past changes have elicited. The social networking site has raised many eyebrows in the last two years after several design changes have lead to what many feared was a decrease in privacy for users and an overzealous attempt by Facebook to get users to share information—sometimes unknowingly, and sometimes and at their peril.

The company, which addressed privacy concerns as recently as Sunday night in a CBS 60 Minutes interview with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is increasing its presence in Washington, D.C. by beefing up its lobbying team. That team will now have to eight members—up from zero just three years ago, according to a story written by Bloomberg News.

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The new profile page, which is being rolled out in phases and is not yet available on all accounts, urges users to "share your experiences, discover common interests, and highlight meaningful relationships." Differences include a new area at the top of the page which summarizes information such as occupation, city of residence, educational background, marital status, and a row of recent pictures of the account holder. The changes themselves did not set off alarm bells among security and privacy experts who reacted to them Monday, but some did note the new format means more information is shared, and more possibility for crime using that information now exists.

"I'm in two minds about these changes, not least because Facebook seems to be taking the opportunity to persuade its users to commit yet more information about their day-to-day lives to the social networking juggernaut," said Paul Ducklin, Head of Technology, Asia Pacific, for security firm Sophos, in a blog post. ''By all means, embrace the New Profile. But don't rush into sharing ever-more information with ever-more people on Facebook. Information about your life and lifestyle is much more useful to identity thieves, cyberscammers and fraudsters than it is to the average person you might think of as a friend on Facebook."

Joey Tyson, a social media security expert who maintains the site Social Hacking, had already seen the changes because they were activated on his account Monday morning. He said his concerns were minimal.

"From my initial investigations, I don't have any new privacy or security concerns. The change doesn't seem to have affected much (if any) in terms of how privacy and data sharing operate - it's more of a UI change."

Kayleigh Platz, researcher and social media specialist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, had the new profile updates on her account Monday morning as well and said she had looked into her privacy settings to see if the changes had impacted them in any way. That has been a complaint about past redesigns, which caused settings to default to 'public' and left many users exposed unknowingly and caused problems (including job loss) for some.

"There aren't that many changes to the profile proper, and Facebook has assured users that privacy settings will not be disturbed if users choose to use the new profile," said Platz. "I did check my settings anyway, just in case, and they are still the same."

While Platz noted the changes are not as significant compared to past redesigns Facebook has made, she did identify three areas where she thought Facebook may eventually begin to see pushback and concern from users as the new design is adopted on all accounts. They include:

Pushing users for more information

With the new profile layout, there is a pressure to share more information, said Platz. According to Facebook, the type of information that you would generally share upon meeting someone the first time.

"Facebook is trying to encourage you to make more of your information public, even if it's just on your own profile," said Platz. "I know personally I already saw three messages from Facebook that suggested I update my information to add to the experience."

Education and work format

Facebook is keeping its education and work area as a mini-LinkedIn profile, said Platz. You can now add projects and experience under your titles and degrees. You can also now tag someone to your job as well.

"I can see this perhaps becoming an issue if people don't necessarily want to be linked to projects etc and aren't given that choice."

Photo sharing

Platz said the biggest and most dramatic change to Facebook profiles is the photo sharing tool on profile pages. Now, when you look at a profile, you see a row of pictures. These photos, according to Facebook, should be the last few photos that the users has been tagged in. Again, this is something not everyone may want to share, said Platz.

"It also seems that the default view, if you have your tagged photos hidden, is to display the last few profile pictures that you have posted. At this moment there doesn't seem to be a way to turn off this function without blocking all photos from your profile. I personally do not need to see five pictures of myself when I go to my profile, and I'm assuming my friends don't want to see five headshots of me - they all know what I look like."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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