Study finds Facebook users more private than ever

facebook mark zuckerbergIn the two years since the boy-king of social networking Mark Zuckerberg famously declared the death of privacy, it seems Facebook users have actually become more private about sharing their personal details with strangers. In a new study released today by the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, researchers found that since 2010, the number of users that choose to hide their friend lists publicly has actually increased by a staggering 200 percent.

According to the study, “In March 2010, 17 percent of users in the sample hid their friend list from their public profile. Just 15 months later, 53 percent of users opted to make that list private.”

Researchers crawled the public profiles of 1.4 million Facebook users in order to compile the data — the largest Facebook privacy study ever conducted, according to the authors. Still, that number accounts for only a small fraction of Facebook’s estimated 850 million users. The study also found that women tended to restrict more personal data more often than men (55 percent vs. 49 percent), and that wealthier Facebook users were also the most private.

Brave new world

The past few weeks have witnessed the unleashing of a veritable assault on user privacy: Along with an unprecedented (and possibly illegal) change in the way Google will allow its user’s personal information to be shared across its far-reaching web presences, the popular social networking app Path also found itself the focus of Internet ire after acknowledging it had uploaded user’s address books to its servers without their explicit permission.

Then late last week, Twitter, in acknowledgement of the same iOS bug that allowed Path to pull addresses, also admitted to storing user contact lists on its servers for up to 18 months, in the hopes of being more easily able to suggest twitter followers based on user email addresses.

The privacy lapses have put Apple on the offensive, particularly after US members of congress began a formal inquiry into the behavior, “demanding answers to ‘claims that the practice of collecting consumers’ address book contacts without their permission is common and accepted among [third-party] app developers,’” according to the Guardian. Apple has so far responded only by stating, “We’re working to make this even better for our customers, and as we have done with location services, any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release,” quoted the Wall Street Journal.

Conspicuously absent however, from the iOS 5.1 pre-Gold Master leaked this morning, were any mentions of a fix for this issue in the forthcoming update to the software that powers both Apple’s iPhone and iPad.

What Facebook does right

Back to that infamous quote: In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at the Crunchie awards in San Francisco that “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

However, according to professor Keith Ross, who headed the recent Facebook privacy study, it is precisely because of the evolving normalness of sharing that users may be turning more private once again: “We believe that greater sensitivity and public awareness of privacy issues, combined with easier privacy options on Facebook, spurred more members to protect their information,” said Ross.

The fact remains that Facebook made it easier, and not more difficult, for users to protect their privacy, regardless of Zuckerberg’s personal philosophies — and Facebook was in turn rewarded with a swelling increase in membership. What this study illustrates is not only that users are looking to more actively curate their online personas — and choose more deliberately what information is shared with whom and how — but that they are willing to stick with a service that offers those choices. The next time Google, Twitter, Path, and the like try to sneak a privacy issue under the Internet’s collective nose, those companies should do well to remember that privacy is no longer an issue that the modern user takes for granted.

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