Product Watch: Facebook Reveals New Privacy Setting Changes

But social network's privacy policies remain unchanged, security experts say
Facebook announced its new privacy setting feature changes today in response to the massive backlash that came to a head over how the social network was sharing members' information with third-party websites -- and Facebook says these changes represent the final piece in the overhaul of its privacy model. So unless members revolt again, this is Facebook's final crack at privacy -- for now, anyway.

"If you find these changes helpful, then we plan to keep this privacy framework for a long time. That means you won't need to worry about changes," said Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, in a blog post.

But security experts say that while the changes do give members more control over how their personal information is shared, Facebook has not changed its privacy policies overall. Defaults remain in place for sharing with "Everyone" and include the controversial instant personalization feature, according to Chet Wisniewski, senior security adviser at Sophos.

The changes revolve around three areas: a single control for content, more powerful controls for members' basic information, and a way to turn off applications more easily. The new features will be rolled out during the next several weeks.

"The number one thing we've heard is that there just needs to be a simpler way to control your information. We've always offered a lot of controls, but if you find them too hard to use then you won't feel like you have control. Unless you feel in control, then you won't be comfortable sharing and our service will be less useful for you. We agree we need to improve this," Zuckerberg said in his blog post on the announcement today.

The single control sets who can see which content members post. Any future settings for new Facebook features will automatically default to whatever the member chooses. "So if you decide to share your content with friends only, then we will set future settings to friends only as well. This means you won't have to worry about new settings in the future," Zuckerberg said. "This single control makes it easier to set who can see all your content at once, but you can still use all of the same granular controls we've offered if you'd like."

Facebook also has minimized the amount of basic information that is available to the public. "Now we'll be giving you the ability to control who can see your friends and pages. These fields will no longer have to be public," he said.

But Zuckerberg noted that Facebook still recommends members make their basic information open to "Everyone." "Otherwise, people you know may not be able to find you and that will make the site less useful for you," he said.

The third change is in how applications and other websites can access members' information. There will now be a way to turn off "Platform" altogether, as well as a simple way to turn off instant personalization.

Sophos' Wisniewski says the new privacy page seems to eliminate confusion over what information users are sharing with others. But Facebook has not instituted any fundamental changes to its privacy model, and settings default to "Everyone."

"While we laud some of the steps that Facebook has taken today, we emphasize that the community must remain vigilant and maintain a critical eye on any change that is made to ensure that improvements continue and that gains are not lost," Wisniewski says.

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