In one of the latest Facebook statistics, stats and facts reports, insiders estimate that with over 500 million users, the social network is now used by 1 in every 13 people on earth, with over 250 million of them logging in every day.
In doing so, users are pursuing relationships with friends, browsing different media content, networking with business and planning social events.
Although many users don't care to think about it, in order to execute the above tasks, Facebook, as well as other social networks, are collecting huge amounts of personal information and distributing it faster than ever before. But what happens with all of that information that makes it possible for you to find old classmates or see ads for things you actually want to buy?
More importantly, how much information is really being collected about you, how is it being used, and could it fall into the wrong hands? A recent investigation done by Consumer Reports (CS) raises these questions and brings the real answers to the surface.
Using interviews with Facebook insiders, security experts, privacy lawyers, app developers, and victims of security and privacy abuse, the consumer publication gets to the bottom of one of one of the biggest question about the world's most popular social network -- who sees the data you share on Facebook?
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According to CS, much of the problem starts with the users themselves.
Some people are sharing too much. Our projections suggest that 4.8 million people have used Facebook to say where they planned to go on a certain day (a potential tip-off for burglars) and that 4.7 million 'liked' a Facebook page about health conditions or treatments (details an insurer might use against you), CS writes.
But while the above might be true, there is also evidence that people are increasingly using Facebook more responsibly. CS says that 25 percent of people falsified information in their profiles to protect their identity, up from 10 percent two years ago.
Another fact that users don't realize, is that Facebook, recently valued at $96 billion, collects more data than you could, or even want to, imagine.
Did you know that Facebook gets a report every time you visit a site with a Facebook Like button, even if you never click the button, are not a Facebook user, or are not logged in? CS asks.
In an interview CS, Andrew Noyes, Facebook's manager of public policy communications, says the company takes privacy and safety issues seriously. He highlighted a blog posted in 2011 by founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who wrote, We do privacy access checks literally tens of billions of times each day to ensure we're enforcing that only the people you want see your content.
But even as Facebook does privacy access checks literally tens of billions of times each day, your data is being shared more widely than you may wish.
Under the Safety and Privacy page of the Facebook Newsroom, the social network says that they provide simple and powerful tools that allow people to control what information they share and with whom. When you post a status update or photo on Facebook, in-line controls enable you to select your audience at the time you post.
But what it doesn't tell you is that even if you have restricted your information to be seen by friends only, a friend who is using a Facebook app could allow your data to be transferred to a third party without your knowledge.
While the legal protections for these kinds of issues are spotty, U.S. online privacy laws are said to be weaker than those of Europe much of the rest of the world. The analysis from this research suggests that users have few federal rights to see and control most of the information that social networks collects.
Last time I checked, large corporate interests aren't allowed to trample on widely recognized fundamental rights just because their founders have invented some new, profitable privacy-busting product, yet that is exactly what has happened to privacy rights over the past few years, James Steyer, founder of the children's-advocacy group Common Sense Media and author of the book Talking Back to Facebook, tells CS.
New European laws are enforcing the law that companies must notify consumers before collecting their data, and that people have the right to obtain and correct copies of their information.
The European commission even recently proposed tighter rules that would require explicit opt-in consent before data were gathered and let you order that your data be permanently deleted-a provision known as the right to be forgotten.
But according to CS, while there are strong U.S. federal privacy laws covering your financial and health data, Americans have few federal rights to see and control much of the information they share through social networks.
Given that Facebook operates on a worldwide scale, CS looked in to what data Facebook actually keeps about its users.
We know that thanks in large part to Max Schrems, a 24-year-old Austrian law student who managed to get a fuller copy of his personal information last year from Facebook's Dublin office, which oversees relations with users outside the U.S. and Canada. Schrems was surprised to discover, among the 1,222 pages of data covering three years of Facebook activity, not only deleted wall posts and messages, some with sensitive personal information, but e-mail addresses he'd deleted and names he'd removed from his friends list, CS wrote.
The consumer report goes on to suggest that another way personal data can escape is through Facebook games and apps. Whenever you run an application on Facebook, the site gets your public information, such as your name, gender, and profile photo, as well as your list of friends even if you haven't made that list public.
And according to the report, if you give the app certain permissions, it can peer deeper into your data and even see information that your friends share with you, unless they have specifically forbidden sharing with apps in their own privacy settings.
But while Facebook offers man privacy controls, a new study by Siegel+Gale, New York-based consultants, cited by CS, finds that Facebook's and Google's privacy policies are tougher to comprehend than the typical bank credit card agreement or government notice.
In light of their recent findings, CS has offered up 10 unique ways for users to protect their personal information from Facebook and other social-networking sites.
1. Think before you type
Even if you delete an account (which takes Facebook about a month), some info can remain in Facebook's computers for up to 90 days.
2. Regularly check your exposure
Each month, check out how your page looks to others. Review individual privacy settings if necessary.
3. Protect basic information
Set the audience for profile items, such as your town or employer. And remember: Sharing info with friends of friends could expose it to tens of thousands.
4. Know what you can't protect
Your name and profile picture are public. To protect your identity, don't use a photo, or use one that doesn't show your face.
5. UnPublic your wall
Set the audience for all previous wall posts to just friends.
6. Turn off Tag Suggest
If you'd rather not have Facebook automatically recognize your face in photos, disable that feature in your privacy settings. The information will be deleted.
7. Block apps and sites that snoop
Unless you intercede, friends can share personal information about you with apps. To block that, use controls to limit the info apps can see.
8. Keep wall posts from friends
You don't have to share every wall post with every friend. You can also keep certain people from viewing specific items in your profile.
9. When all else fails, deactivate
When you deactivate your account, Facebook retains your profile data, but the account is made temporarily inaccessible. Deleting an account, on the other hand, makes it inaccessible to you forever.
10. Social Network Abstinence
Somehow, some way, people managed to get on with their lives by not having access to things such as social networks. While it might not be the most efficient way to live your life, at least you won't be subject to identity theft.