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Is It Even Possible To Protect Your Privacy On Facebook?

Mary Guedon of the group Raging Grannies holds a sign as she protests in 2010 outside of the Facebook headquarters in California. Privacy advocates say it's too difficult to fully protect your privacy on Facebook.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Mary Guedon of the group Raging Grannies holds a sign as she protests in 2010 outside of the Facebook headquarters in California. Privacy advocates say it's too difficult to fully protect your privacy on Facebook.

The recent revelations that personal data from about 50 million Facebook users were used by a data analytics firm working for the Trump campaign are making a lot of the social network's users uneasy.

Some are wondering if there's a better way to limit who can access their personal information.

Shanna Carlile-Roy, a part time student living in a remote area of northern California, is on Facebook, but she's uncomfortable with its privacy policies. Yet she stays on the site. "I feel trapped with the site because it's such a form of connection that I've become dependent on," she says.

Carlile-Roy tries to use Facebook's privacy settings. But she says it's not so easy. "You're expected to go and try to research it yourself, read through all the fine print and it's still really elusive," she says.

There are a few things you can do. Let's start with apps. Cambridge Analytica, the firm with ties to the Trump campaign, got user data through a researcher who had an app. Apps are one way your Facebook information winds up outside of its walls.

When you use an app for a game, a survey or anything, you're sharing your data. There is a way to stop this.

Emory Roane of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says "users can and certainly should go to their Facebook page and check their connected apps."

To do that, go to settings. Click on Apps. Click on Apps, Websites and Plugins. Then you can deny access to all apps by clicking "disable platform." That's straightforward.

If you don't want to deny all apps, you can deny access to certain details about yourself — your religion, your family connections, your interests. Just click on "Edit" for "Apps Others Use."

If you don't want Facebook following you around, Roane says, turn off location services. "If it's asking for your location information all the time or when the app is up," he says, "maybe set it to only when the app is up or disable it altogether."

Or just don't use Facebook on your phone. There are other steps you can take, as laid out by public interest organizations like Consumer Reports.

Still, Terrell McSweeny, a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, warns users not to be overly confident of keeping all their information private. There are certain details that will be made public on Facebook no matter what you do.

"Your name, your profile picture, your gender, your cover photos, your networks, your user name are always publicly available," McSweeny says. "That's part of the policy of that website."

But Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a group that advocates for privacy rights, says Facebook has a reputation for suddenly changing its privacy rules.

"You could spend all day trying to protect your privacy on Facebook," he says. "You wouldn't be able to go to work or school. You'd be spending your day full time dealing with Facebook."

Chester does not think creating better privacy controls is the answer for consumers. "I think for the average person there's nothing that one can do to protect their privacy," he says.

Chester thinks Europe has the right idea. On May 25, a new law there will take effect allowing regulators there "to be able to come down heavy on Facebook, Google and the others," Chester says. The companies will be required "to get your permission first before they can use your data and create new limits on the ways that Facebook and Google and others operate," he adds.

Chester says it will be interesting to see if the new rules in Europe hurt Facebook profits.

In an interview earlier this week on CNN, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he wouldn't object to some regulation of Facebook. But it seems unlikely he'd welcome what's about to happen in Europe.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.