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Facebook offers privacy checkup to all 1.28b of its users

Facebook will change how it treats new users by setting posts to be seen only by friends and explaining that adjusting the setting to public means anyone can see their messages.handout/the new york times

SAN FRANCISCO — Do you know who can see what you are posting on Facebook, including your photos, birthday, and personal cellphone number?

Chances are, you don’t.

Responding to business pressures and longstanding concerns that its privacy settings are too complicated, Facebook announced Thursday that it was giving a privacy checkup to each of its 1.28 billion users.

Facebook, which is based in Menlo Park, Calif., will also change how it treats new users by initially setting their posts to be seen only by friends. It will explain to them that adjusting the setting to “public” means that anyone on the Internet can see their photos and messages.


The change in default settings and the person-by-person review, which may shock users who suddenly realize how widely their personal information has been shared, is a sharp reversal for Facebook Inc.

“They have gotten enough privacy black eyes at this point that I tend to believe that they realized they have to take care of consumers a lot better,” said Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

For most of its 10-year history, Facebook has pushed — and sometimes forced — its users to share more information more publicly, drawing fire from customers, regulators, and privacy advocates around the globe.

For Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s cofounder and chief executive, more sensitivity to privacy might be good business.

Zuckerberg has seen privacy-friendly services like WhatsApp and Snapchat, and anonymous-sharing apps like Secret and Whisper, emerge as a competitive threat, particularly among younger users. That prompted him to strike a deal this year to buy WhatsApp for as much as $19 billion.

“What we really want is to enable people to share what they want,” Zuckerberg said in an interview. “People read a lot of the stuff that we do as if we are trying to somehow get people to share more things, but all the core innovations are around giving people the tools they need to be comfortable.”


Facebook might be acting to forestall any actions by regulators, who constantly scrutinize its privacy practices. European privacy officials are reviewing the company’s proposed acquisition of WhatsApp, which follows stricter privacy procedures than Facebook does. In the United States, the company is wrangling in a federal appeals court about how it uses the personal data of teenagers in ads sent to their friends.

Even as Facebook takes steps to empower its users on privacy, it continues to introduce features that raise new issues. On Wednesday, it announced an optional service for mobile phones that eavesdrops on the sounds in a room to try to identify any music or television shows that might be playing. Facebook says it does not store the data for long, but it is the first time the firm has tried to listen in on its users’ lives.

But Facebook has made several other moves recently that indicate it is taking privacy seriously. Last month, it began a location-sharing feature called Nearby Friends that is entirely optional and provides only a user’s general location

In its announcement, Facebook said that when people sign in to post something, they will soon see a cartoon blue dinosaur that pops up with the message, “We just wanted to make sure you’re sharing with the right people.”

The service will then walk users through the privacy settings for their status updates, remind them of the applications that have permission to use their Facebook data, and review the privacy settings for some of the most private information on their profiles, such as their hometown, employer, e-mail address, phone number and birth date.