ReclaimPrivacy.org: Facebook Privacy 101

If you’ve been watching the slow motion train wreck that is Facebook.com‘s recent effort to revamp its privacy promises, you may be wondering where to start making sense of the dizzying array of privacy options offered by the world’s largest online social network. Fortunately, developers are starting to release free new tools so that you don’t need to read a statement longer than the U.S. Constitution or earn a masters degree in Facebook privacy in order to get started.

Reclaimprivacy.org hosts an easy-to-use, open source tool that can help Facebook users very quickly determine what types of information they are sharing with the rest of the world. To use it, visit reclaimprivacy.org and drag the “bookmarklet” over into your bookmarks area. Then log in to facebook.com, and browse to your privacy settings page. Then, click the bookmark and it will run a series of Javascript commands that produce a report showing your various privacy settings, and suggest ways to strengthen weaker settings.

Software engineer Matt Pizzimenti said he got the idea for the tool while on a flight back from Michigan a few weeks ago.

“I realized as I was going through all my privacy settings that some stuff seemed to be missing, and that some had been defaulted back to ‘open’,” Pizzimenti said. “I’m pretty vigilant about my settings, but my family and friends aren’t as aware, and the navigation needed to fix all this stuff is kind of complicated.”

When I ran the bookmarklet on my Facebook account, it told me all but two of my settings were secure. It reported that “instant personalization is currently sharing personal information with non-Facebook websites,” and offered a one-click button designed to let you opt-out of instant personalization. The tool also told me that my Facebook friends can accidentally share my personal information, and included another clickable tab to sew up that privacy setting as well.  If you feel  like alerting your friends to the Reclaim Privacy tool, there’s a button that allows you to do that, too.

This tool is handy in that it makes it easier for the average Facebook user to tighten up on his or her privacy settings. But it seems like it needs a bit more development to iron out the kinks. On my Mac OS X 10.6 system, for example, the tool scanned just fine but refused to fix any of the insecure settings. At first I thought maybe my installation of the Noscript add-on was blocking the changes, but the tool failed to make the changes even when I’d disabled Noscript entirely. Fortunately, clicking the links included in each privacy scanner listing brings up the relevant Facebook privacy settings page, and from there the options aren’t hard to set or undo.

On my Windows 7 system, the bookmarklet crashed the latest version of Firefox three times in row when I ran it. I’m still working out if one of my many Firefox extensions simply wasn’t playing nice with it, but I take some solace in the fact that Facebook applications are the most common causes of Firefox crashes: According to Mozilla‘s latest crash stats, Facebook and Facebook apps are the #1, #2, #4, #5, #6, #8 and #10 biggest causes of crashes in Firefox. In any case, it may not be a bad idea to save your work (and bookmark any important sites you have open) before you continue with a scan.

Have you run this scanner against your Facebook page? Sound off with your results and experience with the tool in the comments below.

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