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Facebook’s privacy back roads: Here's how to keep your posts private

The Exchange
Facebook has a variety of ways to make sure you haven't posted in public by accident.

I was goofing around on Facebook (FB) the other day when I stumbled into a section I’d never seen before, called the Activity Log. It’s accessible via a clearly labeled link at the top of your profile page. This seemingly endless scrolling list contained not only every post I’d ever made, but also all of my likes, comments and even mentions of me by other Facebook users.

Essentially, it was a kind of cute if occasionally embarrassing tally of the goofy pictures and musings I’ve posted of my kids, my meals and my travels.

Once I found the list, I was more than a little curious to check my privacy settings. The occasional public post may be a little embarrassing or even harmless. Generally speaking, though, it’s not a good idea to make all of your private activity public. Hackers, identity thieves and even, in some cases, real thieves, can use the info to crack your online accounts or break into your house when you’re not there. And Facebook has changed its privacy setting options and policies more than a few times, making it doubly important to review your activity.

And, in that regard, the Activity Log turned out to be highly informative. Along the top, right side of each individual listing was a tiny icon. Most were Facebook’s familiar friends icons, but some were a gear icon and a few had a globe icon.

Investigating further, I discovered that each icon disclosed the privacy settings of the particular item posted. Hovering my mouse pointer over the friend icon revealed just whose friends could see the item – usually mine or whoever else had posted about me. The gear icon indicated that someone had created a limited, custom group to see the item – say just people from work, or everyone except people from work.

But it was the globe icon that was ultimately the most intriguing. It signified a public post. And many of the public posts seemed to be by friends who don’t usually disclose everything on Facebook publicly.

Staying on guard

After reaching out to some of these posters, most were puzzled -- it seems they’d posted publicly by accident. That used to happen pretty easily with Facebook’s mobile apps, although the company has made improvements, especially on iOS, to minimize the problem.

Your own over-shared posts can be rectified right from the activity log. Hover your mouse near the globe icon and click on the blue triangle that appears. A menu drops down with various privacy settings, including “only me,” “friends” and “public.” Click your preference and the problem is solved.

However, only the person who posted the item can change the setting. That can be a bit annoying if you’ve made a flippant or impolitic comment on someone else’s post or photograph without realizing that your friend had left the item – and its following chain of comments -- public for the world to see. In that situation, you have to ask your friend to change the setting, or, worst case, delete your comment.

What I heard ...

There was one additional puzzling aspect to my Activity Log. It seems at some point, way back, I agreed to let Spotify, the online music service, post to my Facebook timeline. I don’t really listen to much on Spotify anymore, though. It’s my teenage son who uses it most.

So, there on my timeline, apparently going back years, was a catalog of cool, hip songs that my friends probably thought I was sampling. These posts never showed up on my own timeline as I saw it – just when friends looked at my timeline from their point of view.

In this case, the accidental posting by the Spotify app was pretty innocuous. It may have even enhanced my reputation as some sort of pop music guru, thanks to my son’s eclectic and savvy selections. But you can imagine that there might be apps you wouldn’t want making these kind of semi-invisible posts.

To fix the problem, go to Facebook’s settings page and click on Apps. You might be surprised to see just how long a list of apps you’ve given permission to at least access your Facebook account. On the right side of each app’s listing is an edit link. Click it and you can see just what the app’s been up to and what permissions it has to post. From here, you can revoke the permissions or delete the app’s access to your account completely.

Besides reviewing the Activity Log for public items, a potentially lengthy process if you’ve been active on the social network for a few years, Facebook also provides a way to make wholesale changes for all of your own posts.

Go to Facebook’s privacy settings page and look at the "who can see my stuff" section. There’s a subsection called "Limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friends of friends or public." Clicking on the link takes you to a tool for changing the privacy settings for all older posts.

Again, people’s privacy tolerance differs, and yours may evolve over time. But if you’re worried about what you’ve said and done on Facebook, be sure to take a look at your Activity Log. It’s the key to privacy peace of mind, Facebook-wise at least.