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Greater privacy control for social media users

Image: privacy control, social media

It may appear odd that adverts on social media seem to know exactly what you like. It’s not a coincidence and your privacy may be at risk – but research is providing ways of giving users control over who can see their confidential information.

Picture the scene – you’re online and reading about your favourite band, or even browsing for a perfect gift. Then you have a look at Facebook, and you cannot help but notice an advert for your favourite band’s back catalogue, or the latest great offer from the gift company you’ve just read about.

It’s not just a coincidence, Facebook can pick up on your browsing habits across multiple devices and platforms. But this raises questions over privacy, does anyone like having information given to them that they didn’t ask to see? And who is it that’s seeing your data and is in control of these third-party applications on Facebook, and what are they doing with it?

Research carried out at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, has investigated the limitations around online privacy to suggest ways that will give users greater control of who can access information about them.

Some initial work carried out by Sarath Tomy and Eric Pardede in 2014 found that a Facebook application could access data from messages, posts, chats, friend requests and more to what they called “startling” levels. With users having little to no control over what information is shared over multiple devices and platforms.

Their proposal is that users can ‘grade’ their private data to different levels of who can see it. An easy-to-use interface, embedded into Facebook and potentially other social media, presents the user with a range of data ranging from their name, their likes, their age to photos. These are colour-coded to give a traffic light-style system of who can and cannot see that category.

  • Blue – viewable by the public
  • Orange – by friends
  • Red – private information only

The user ticks the categories as they see fit – and they can see how risky their settings are via a ‘privacy risk calculator’ at the top of the interface. As a result, users are in complete control of their profile information when accessing third party applications in Facebook.

Tomy and Pardede hope to further pursue their research, to help social media users protect their privacy from third party apps, and even from attempted hacks.

The research can be read in full here: ‘Controlling privacy disclosure of third party applications in online social networks’, International Journal of Web Information Systems, Vol. 12.2

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