STUDY: Confusing Facebook Privacy Settings Lead To More Public Information

By Justin Lafferty 

Even though Facebook’s privacy settings change often, a study by Carnegie Mellon University shows that more users are becoming better at keeping sensitive information off the social network. According to a study of more than 5,000 Facebook profiles, fewer users are making public information such as date of birth and political affiliation. However, confusion over Facebook’s privacy settings has led to an increase in posting of interests such as favorite movies, books, and music — as well as sharing to applications and advertisers.

Carnegie Mellon examined the Facebook habits of 5,076 users between 2005 and 2011, studying how their sharing habits changed over time. The study was authored by CMU Associate Professor of Information Technology and Public Policy Alessandro Acquisti, along with university researchers Ralph Gross and Fred Stutzman.

In 2005, when Facebook was still largely in its infancy and was only available to select universities, users were more likely to make public information such as their high school, birth date, hometown, political affiliation, and whether they were looking for any kind of relationship. However, as Facebook rolled out to more colleges and eventually opened up to everyone, users became aware about what is public.

In 2005, more than 70 percent of the participants shared their birth date, high school, hometown, and instant messenger information. However, as Facebook privacy settings changed in 2009, making public the default setting, more information became shared, the study notes:

As Facebook grew in popularity and new features were added, the individuals in our panel became less public with the information they shared. In 2010, we begin to notice a reversal in the trend of certain types of information sharing. That is, in previous years, we have observed declining public sharing for almost every variable we collected; in 2010, we see this trend of declining public sharing reverse in that for certain variables, public disclosure starts increasing. While this reversal does not mitigate all of the previous reduced disclosure (e.g., it does not restore disclosure levels to their 2004 maximums), it is interesting to observe.

While there wasn’t a rebound in private information such as users’ addresses, political stances, or birth dates after 2009, the Carnegie Mellon researchers found that more users shared their favorite movies, books, and music, as well as their high schools.

The reason for this uptick in sharing? Researchers pointed to the new privacy controls instituted in December 2009 that made it confusing for many users, with the default setting making profile information public. The study points out that this led to a complaint by the Federal Communications Commission, which made Facebook make privacy settings easier to understand.

The study notes that this may be why more information was made public in 2010 and 2011, but making Facebook pages’ information public (showing what pages a user has liked) led to an uptick around sharing interests such as books and movies. Many users were prompted to publicly connect to pages via the opt-in wizard, making that information public, the study notes:

Reflecting back on the items that comprise our reversal — high school, hometown, address, interests, and their favorite movies, books, and music — we see a complete match-up between this information and the information converted to pages by Facebook in 2010. For this reason, we conclude that the trend reversal that occurred in our dataset between Oct. 4, 2009, and Nov. 12, 2010, was not indicative of a popular trend to share more information publicly, but more likely the result of the Dec. 9, 2009, and April 19, 2010, policy and interface changes on a largely unsuspecting public.

The researchers also found that as time went on, more users shared more information privately, to friends and to third-party apps — largely because of the confusion over privacy settings, which Facebook is still trying to battle today.  The study noted that throughout the years, users started to cede more information to apps and advertisers without explicit permission. Additionally, more users began to share information with people who they didn’t know could see their profile.

Acquisti discussed the study in a press release:

These findings highlight the tension between privacy choices as expressions of individual subjective preferences, and the role of the network environment in shaping those choices. While people try to take control of their personal information, the network keeps changing, affecting their decisions and changing their privacy outcomes.

The full study is available here.

Readers: On a scale of one to 10, how confident do you feel in your knowledge of Facebook’s privacy settings?

Images courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University and Shutterstock.