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Study: Facebook users now privacy-conscious but still sharing more data than ever

Facebook users have taken steps to guard their privacy on the social network over the years, but changes to Facebook's policies have prompted an inadvertent increase in sharing recently, according to a new study.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University studied data posted publicly to the university's network between 2005 and 2011, focusing on just over 5,000 members. They found that as Facebook expanded its scope, members took steps to make more of their personal information private. That changed slightly between 2009 and 2010, however, when updates to Facebook's privacy policies meant that information was shared more widely across a member's social connections.

That data included high school, hometown, address, interests, and favourite films, books, and music, the report found. This coincided with the December 2009 rollout of new privacy settings intended to give users more control over who could see their profile information. But that update was the subject of much controversy, since it was confusing and seemingly opened up profile data to people who hadn't previously been able to view it. Ultimately, Facebook introduced an overhauled privacy policy in May 2010, and the issue led to an FTC settlement that found Facebook had "deceived" its users.

The report also cited the 2010 switch to connected profiles, which linked biographical information provided on a user's page to Wikipedia-like Pages across Facebook. If you wanted to include that data on your page, it automatically linked to those pages whether you liked it or not.

"Reflecting back on the items that comprise our reversal [in what was shared] - high school, hometown, address, interests, and their favorite movies, books, and music - we see a complete matchup between this information and the information converted to Pages by Facebook in 2010," the report found.

Still, "broadly speaking, our panel individuals shared less information publicly in 2011 than they did when they first joined Facebook," the report concluded.

In recent years, controls that allowed people to share information with only a select group led to an increase in sharing among friends rather than the public at large. But with the advent of "frictionless sharing" apps and ads across the network, people "disclosed more to other entities as well ... often without awareness or explicit consent."

Facebook has, of course, evolved dramatically between 2005 and 2011, thanks in large part to the fact that it shifted from a college-only network to a public service in 2006. Facebook is no longer a closed network for college students keeping tabs on frat parties and linking up with classmates, but a global powerhouse with more than 1 billion members. Carnegie Mellon's Facebook network, for example, grew from 3,000 members in 2005 to over 20,000 by 2011.

In a statement, Facebook said that "independent research has verified that the vast majority of the people on Facebook are engaging with and using our straightforward and powerful privacy tools - allowing them to control what they're sharing, and with whom they're sharing."

The study did acknowledge that its findings are limited given that it only focuses on a small subset of college students.

"One limitation of this data is that it cannot reflect a random sample of current Facebook users; hence, extrapolations to the general Facebook population should be considered with caution," the report concluded. "On the other hand, its longitudinal nature offers users an unprecedented view of the long term evolution of privacy and disclosure behaviour on a social network site."