Facebook Users Take a Sharp Turn Toward Privacy

Study of 1.4 Million Users Shows Dramatic Increase in Restricting Personal Information

On a social network where it is possible to share personal information with 850 million people worldwide, users are increasingly opting to do just the opposite. A study of 1.4 million Facebook members indicates a dramatic rise in demand for privacy, with the number of users choosing to hide their friend list up more than 200 percent over a 15-month period.  The research also reveals stronger privacy preferences among women and members with higher incomes. 

Keith Ross, the Leonard J. Shustek Professor of Computer Science at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), led the study as part of an ongoing inquiry into Internet privacy leaks and trends. 

Ross and co-investigators Ratan Dey and Zubin Jelveh — both doctoral candidates at 

NYU-Poly — crawled the public profile pages of 1.4 million Facebook users in New York City in March 2010 and June 2011, noting which aspects of the profile were accessible and which were hidden.  The public profile is the page displayed when viewing the profile of someone with whom the searcher is not a designated Facebook friend. The amount of information available on the public page can be adjusted according to user preferences.  

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.  Other aspects of the profile, including age, high school name and graduation year, network, relationship, gender, interests, hometown and current city, were also hidden with greater frequency in the later survey. In 2010, only 12 percent of the sampled users hid personal information in all of these categories. By 2011, that number jumped to 33 percent. 

Ross credits a combination of social and policy factors for the shift in privacy preferences. “During the time of our research, Facebook implemented a major redesign in its privacy options, partly due to pressure generated by a huge uptick in media stories about the vulnerabilities of revealing personal information online,” explains Ross. “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."

Ross and his collaborators used information from the public profiles to extrapolate additional data points about Facebook users' privacy preferences. Women in both samples were more private than men — as of June 2011, 55 percent of women restricted their personal information, versus 49 percent of men.  

Data analysis also points to a potential correlation between income and privacy. Users in the wealthiest areas of New York, Manhattan specifically, were likeliest to hide their personal information. Among the other boroughs, Staten Island ranked second in privacy, followed by Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. 

While the profiles studied do not represent a random sample, the diverse demographics of New York City lead the researchers to believe that the increased privacy demands are indicative of general trends in the country and perhaps globally. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the largest analysis of Facebook users’ privacy preferences.

Ross will present these findings next month at the IEEE International Workshop on Security and Social Networking in Lugano, Switzerland.