August 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 4

Web Issues

Social Networking Privacy Options

In the May 2010 AccessWorld article "Social Network Accessibility," I took a look at the various ways I use social networking websites for work and play. Since that time, you have likely read countless articles on some of the controversial issues surrounding online privacy. Rest assured, this is nothing new and maintaining online privacy has been a growing concern for many years, probably since the dawn of the Internet itself. Of course, there are people at both ends of the spectrum--those who refuse to use the Internet and others who are an open book. Because I have quite a few profiles online, I suppose I would have to put myself somewhere in the middle. So let's take some time to examine the issues and see how to adjust privacy settings on a handful of these websites.

What Is Privacy?

When you use a computer or handheld device such as a smart phone or notetaker that is connected to the Internet, you have taken your first step into a web of interconnected networks with identifiable features. Although the technology you are using might not be able to detect your name, address, and phone number right away, it does have a pretty good idea of what part of the world your connection is coming from, what type of browser software you are using, and may even collect data about which links you click on. If you choose to create online profiles with personal information such as your name, address, telephone number, or photograph, you should be aware that you have opened up your life voluntarily and must take precautions to protect yourself. However, before you heave your laptop out of the window and hide under the bed, know that there are plenty of things we can do to protect ourselves from cyber bandits. Although I will not detail stealthy methods or techniques to have a completely anonymous Web-browsing session, it is possible to minimize your exposure to potential problems. There are quite a few common-sense tips to remember when surfing the Internet and using social networking sites.

Getting Started

The number-one rule of thumb is to post nothing on the Internet that you don't want other people to know. I cannot stress enough how important it is to read the terms of service pages or privacy statements that are posted on the websites you visit. All major e-commerce, e-mail, and social networking sites have links to these statements on their homepages. While at first you might think you need a degree in "legalese" to understand the language the lawyers have used to draft these documents, after reading a couple of them, they will begin to make more sense. These documents will spell out what personal information is collected from you and how the company plans to use it. Very often, the company uses information for their own purposes, such as measuring efficiency and improving the user experience, or the company might attempt to provide you with additional services. In other cases, the company might sell or rent your personal information to third parties that also want to market products and services to you.

First Steps

Before we look at the privacy settings of some common social networking websites, I thought I would walk through some of the most obvious steps to protecting your privacy. First and foremost, if you don't want people to know something, it is probably a good idea not to post it on the Internet. For example, if you are embarrassed about an outfit you wore at a recent party, then you should avoid posting pictures of yourself in that outfit. If you don't want your boss to know you came to work with a hangover, then it is probably a good idea not to tweet about it on Twitter.

On most social networking sites, the registration process requires very little information; usually just a name, username, password, and a valid e-mail address. Any other information you provide, such as your birthday, address, and phone number, may be made available to other users and perhaps even to marketing companies. However, you usually are not required to provide this information. Also, because social networks function primarily on people inviting or accepting invitations from other people, it is important to filter these invitations. If you are invited to join somebody's Facebook network, but you don't know that person, think twice about accepting his or her invitation. It's the little things that are often overlooked that could be really important to maintaining your privacy.


For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, it is a microblogging platform that allows users to post "tweets" or short messages that are capped at 140 characters. This popular service has many unique features that are not found on other social networking sites.

During the registration process for a Twitter account, it is necessary to provide a valid e-mail address. It is used to verify user registration and to communicate with the user. At this time, you will also provide your name as well as a username. Obviously, one can use a real name or a fictitious name, but note that if you decide to use a fictitious name, your friends and family might not be able to search for you. The additional information that the site asks for, such as a photograph, geographic location, and short biography, are optional, and this gives you more control over how much information to display.

According to the Twitter privacy policy page that I read in early July 2010, the company states, "Our services are primarily designed to help you share information with the world." It goes on to say that one's tweets, followers, and lists are public information unless otherwise made private. The company explains that it does not generally share private user information without the user's permission, as would be the case if you used a third-party Twitter client, such as Accessible Twitter or Qwitter. Generally, most Twitter users want to keep their tweets open to the public as it allows the largest possible audience to read their messages. If you are concerned about who can read your tweets, you can adjust your privacy settings. This includes the ability to approve each Twitter user who wants to follow you. Once you click on the settings link from the homepage, you can check the box that limits your tweets to only people you have approved. Other options on this page let you display your geographic location or allow people to search for you by e-mail address. Additional categories under the settings menu allow you to add or change your photograph, change your password, control how often Twitter sends you e-mail, and change the design of your profile page.

When it comes to Twitter, I believe that the service is designed to allow users to find and follow people whom they might not otherwise meet. Many Twitter users are happy to have complete strangers follow their tweets without worrying about how they might be received. As with most online profiles, you should choose a privacy level that you are comfortable with. If you plan to tweet your most intimate thoughts, you might want to keep it private, but if all you really want to do is let people know what novel you are reading, where you went shopping for shoes, and how sick you feel from ordering a double scoop at the ice cream parlor, then keep your tweets public. But keep in mind that you never know who is going to start following you or who might be reading your tweets if you choose this option.


The majority of LinkedIn users are focused on professional networking. In my opinion, there is more reason to balance what you make public and what you make private in this environment. For example, if you are seeking a new job or business partners, it might work to your advantage to display your job history and education--unless of course, you have not told your boss your are looking for a new job and your boss is connected to you on LinkedIn. However, there may be other reasons you might not want people to be able to identify you if they have not received your permission. The very nature of LinkedIn assumes that you want to share the names of people you know with others as a way to expand your professional network.

According to the privacy policy found on the LinkedIn website in early July 2010, users agree to provide certain personal information to the company when the user registers a new account. LinkedIn does not sell, rent, or otherwise provide personally identifiable information to any third parties for marketing purposes.

The site gives the user a lot of flexibility when it comes to providing and displaying personal information. Some of the options you have control over include selecting what information is made public to search engines, who can contact you through LinkedIn, and what information is visible to others. You also have the option of creating a public profile that could be different from a more robust profile that is visible only to your approved connections.

After navigating to the settings page, you can move by heading to see some of the various ways you can control your privacy. There are quite a number of areas where you can make changes, including whether you can be contacted for research surveys, the ability of your contacts to browse your list of connections, how to display your name if you search for someone, and controlling how updates made to your profile appear to other users. Don't forget that you can control how people, both in and out of your network, can contact you. You may want to play around with some of the settings until you find the perfect balance.


Of all the social networks out there, Facebook has been the one gaining the most headlines when it comes to online privacy. Many people have been concerned that the company has not been transparent with its privacy policy and that it makes it difficult for users to view and change their privacy settings. Others have complained that users must opt in to privacy rather than making it the default setting. Facebook has been strongly criticized for providing third-party applications with access to personal information about users as well as their friends without permission.

Unfortunately, many Facebook users who employ a screenreader to browse the Internet are going to be disappointed that I was unable to change my privacy settings on the mobile Facebook site; for this, you must navigate to the regular site. This could be difficult for people who are not familiar with navigating the site with their screenreader.

Most of the Facebook privacy settings fall into simple categories. You can make information available to friends only, friends of friends, friends and people in your network, or open to any Facebook user. Additionally, some information might be searchable on a search engine such as Bing, Google, or Yahoo and therefore available to the general public. Facebook will automatically make recommended privacy setting levels for you unless you go in and change them yourself. According to the Facebook privacy policy dated July 2010, your name, profile photo, gender, and networks are always available to other Facebook users. Therefore, if you don't want people to know your identity, I recommend that you use a false name and either not post a photograph or post one that does not identify you.

There are a couple of easy ways to adjust your Facebook privacy settings. As of early July 2010, there was a link to learn more about the new Facebook privacy controls at heading level two of my Facebook homepage. Clicking that link takes you to the Facebook privacy guide. If you cannot find that link, look for the link labeled "Account." A word of caution, this link will not take you to a new webpage. Instead, you will be presented with a list of seven additional menu options. You can use the down arrow key to find the link labeled "Privacy Settings." This link will also take you to the Facebook privacy guide page.

The page makes use of headings and you will find the information you need on the second level. Use your down arrow key or tab to hear the five categories available for configuration. The categories include profile information, contact information, search control, applications and websites, and block list. Each of the links has additional text, giving you more information about what types of controls you will find if you click on the link. These privacy controls will allow you to decide what information is displayed when people click on your profile or try to contact you, how your profile appears in search results on Facebook and search engines such as Google, how much of your personal information is available to third-party applications found on Facebook, such as games, and how to block people from contacting you.

Screenreader users should be aware that the technology used to change your settings might not behave like other controls you are used to. Once you find the category you would like to change, your screenreader will announce the category name and what your current setting is if you use the arrow keys on your keyboard. The current setting is a hyperlink that will open up a menu if you click on the link. You can use the arrow keys to scroll up and down to find the selection you are looking for. For example, it could be friends only, friends of friends, etc. Unfortunately, once you click on the link, you might not hear anything, but if you arrow down you will hear additional choices, including two unlabeled buttons (I have yet to determine their functions).

Where Do We Go From Here?

I would be shocked if we did not have more headlines across the Internet about new privacy concerns over the next several months. Companies are constantly introducing new technology and often this means new privacy concerns. One excellent resource is the Electronic Frontier Foundation website. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a civil rights organization that investigates a wide range of issues related to digital products and services.

In the meantime, you can go through your social network profiles and remove sensitive information such as birthdates, home addresses, phone numbers, children's names, and photographs. It is possible to apply the most conservative privacy settings to limit access from outsiders. Always be aware of who you are inviting into your network as well as who is inviting you to join theirs. If you are just too confused or don't care enough to check your privacy settings, all three services allow you to remove your profile.

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