Facebook privacy—or lack thereof— has been a topic that I have written about frequently. Today, Facebook launched two new features that demonstrate they are now taking the privacy issues seriously. (10/6/10: See update at the bottom where I acknowledge that these "advancements" are not all that I originally assumed)
The new version of Facebook Groups allows you to set up a private area for you to have conversations or share photos and videos with a select group of friends or family. Groups will come in handy if you want to share vacation photos with a small group of close friends or if you want to have a discussion about a topic that you would prefer your coworkers weren't in on. Facebook Groups also offers group chat with members who are online and you can use your group as an email list.
Setting up a Facebook Group is simple. Just go to www.facebook.com/groups, enter a name for your group and invite friends to join. If you want the extra security of keeping your membership in the group private, be sure to set the group privacy level to "Secret".
While Facebook Groups has the potential to make Facebook a much less social place, as more conversations go private, I think most Facebook users will still take the easy road of posting publicly unless there is a compelling reason not to. Which is exactly why Groups was created.
Third-party Application Dashboard
The second privacy improvement is a new dashboard to check how third party applications are using your data. When it fully rolls out, you will find the dashboard under your Facebook privacy settings. As of the writing of this article, I was not yet able to access the new dashboard through my account.
The dashboard will provide insights on when each application last used your data and what data it accessed. You can change the settings for each application to either restrict it from accessing certain information, or you can remove the application completely.
I applaud Facebook for rolling these improvements out and looking forward to concerns for our privacy remaining at the top of their agenda.
Update: 10/6/10: Danny Sullivan over at searchengineland.com and others have pointed out that Facebook Groups provides a false sense of privacy that is, in fact, worse than the current situation of no privacy controls.
The problem with Groups is two-fold. First, your friends can add you to a group without your permission. So while your well-meaning (or not) friend may think it would be cool to add you to the "Horny Drunken Losers" group, you may not be so inclined. You will get notification that you were added and can "unjoin". But, until you do, your membership in this dubious group will be visible to others—friends and strangers alike.
Secondly, and this is the part that should concern us most, there is no way to keep a group closed—any member can add any of his or her friends at any time, and you won't be notified about it. So the "private" group where you have been posting unflattering pictures or holding a very personal discussion of mental health issues can suddenly become very public—and you may not even know it.
So, my recommendation has to be not to use Facebook Groups for any information whatsoever that you want to keep private. As a tool to coordinate schedules or post photos (non-embarrassing) of an event? Fine. But assume everything you post could become public at any time.