According to Facebook, more than a billion people worldwide use the social networking site every month. People have taken to Facebook because it makes connecting with others so easy.
We share our thoughts, likes and dislikes, links to websites, articles, photos and videos – but don't forget, Facebook also shares our personal information, our whereabouts and our activities.
This vast data repository has been created by all of us who voluntarily divulge details of our lives. The downside is that it reveals our personal information and our internet browsing habits to the social networking websites we use and, in turn to advertisers, marketers and possibly criminals who operate online.
Understanding all the privacy settings for your account can be daunting, but it really is worth a bit of time and effort to navigate them properly. Because what you may not realise is that even though you have some say over what your friends and the public can see of your profile, Facebook can accumulate personal user data on you for other purposes.
10 ways to protect your privacy
1. Un-tag photos
Click on any photos you've been tagged in and then click 'Options' > 'Remove/Report tag'.
2. Limit your exposure to just the people you know
Go to the gear icon and select 'Settings' > 'Privacy', and next to 'Who can see my stuff?' select just 'Friends'.
3. Avoid unwanted friend requests
Gear icon > 'Settings' > 'Privacy' and under 'Who can contact me?' click 'Friends of friends' and under 'Who can look me up?' click 'Friends' for maximum privacy.
4. Privacy check for older posts
Go to'Settings' > 'Privacy' > 'Who can see my stuff' and use the 'Activity Log' at 'Review all your posts and things you're tagged in' to limit audience for each post.
5. Control others, not just yourself
Go to 'Settings' > 'Timeline and Tagging' and adjust your settings for 'Who can post on your timeline?' to 'Friends' or 'Only me'.
6. Be your own social editor
Go to 'Settings' > 'Timeline and Tagging' and make sure 'Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline' is on.
7. Reject that unwanted friend request
Choose 'Delete friend request' from the 'Friend Requests' page. If that feels too strong or you can't face it right now, click 'Ignore' or opt for 'Hide friend request' so you won't see it anymore.
8. Hide your whereabouts
When you are updating your status, you may notice that your location is automatically added. Hover your mouse over the location icon until you see a little cross, and click on that to disable. If you want to remove your location from a past post, click the post edit icon, then 'Change Location', delete the location, then click 'Okay'. On a smartphone you can also turn off Facebook's access to your mobile's GPS.
9. Keep quiet about your age
Go to your 'Profile' page and click 'About' and then 'Edit' to remove some or all of your age information as well as relationships status, interests, religion and so on.
10. Keep out gate crashers
If you've created an event, go to 'Editor' and then choose 'Invite Only' so you control who knows about it.
Your valuable personal information is used to provide targeted advertising within the Facebook platform, as well as to provide feedback to advertisers on who is clicking on their ads.
Privacy experts argue that users' personal information is the product being sold by Facebook to advertisers. Critics say Facebook exploits personal disclosure without providing adequate ways to permanently delete or redress comments, photos or other contributions that users don't like, aren't comfortable with or change their mind about.
It puts the responsibility on users to monitor and update changing privacy settings, they argue, and doesn't offer adequate privacy protection for users, because its real customers are the online behavioural advertising industry and buyers for online advertisers. Critics also say that Facebook doesn't adequately address the implications and risks that come with encouraging other people to tag photos and identify you.
A website called Facecrooks publishes information on scams and privacy issues related to Facebook and other social networking platforms, to alert concerned people to the risks. It has a "safety centre" with tips and instructions on privacy and security if this is something that worries you.
Facebook Activity Report
Facebook can collate all your activity and information and send it to you as an activity report. The archive includes all your activity including messages and chat conversations, the IP addresses for devices you've used to log in, times and dates of login, and much more.
To access this report, click the gear icon > 'Settings' > 'General' > 'Download a copy of your Facebook data'.
What Facebook finds out about you
Facebook gets information about you from you and your friends' Facebook profiles and activity.
receives your registration information such as name, age, gender, home city and so on
knows everything you do – status updates, photos, comments, when you like a page or website, add a place to your story or change your relationship status
finds out about you from other users through photos, locations, groups, invites and contact information
knows when you receive messages, use the mobile app, make purchases and search for friends
gets data such as your computer or mobile device's IP address, ISP, operating system, location, GPS location and browser
knows if you've used a game, application or website that uses Facebook plugins, and it will have the browser and IP address
uses GPS and other location information to send notifications
uses your profile information as well as stories you share, interactions with ads and keywords from stories to target ads.
Your name, profile picture, cover photo, networks, gender and user name are viewable on the web publicly outside Facebook, and Facebook apps get your public profile information and your friends list.
Take care out there
It's a good idea to take a bit of care, not only with your Facebook privacy and security settings, but also with what you actually post online. Remember, anything you post could potentially exist in cyberspace – to possibly be viewed by virtually anyone – for years to come. Keep this in mind whenever you're about to hit enter (or click 'post'), and make sure you're comfortable with the information you're about to share going out into the great unknown.