More Facebook users are hiding their friends to protect themselves

Far fewer Facebook users are making their Friends lists public, which reduces how much third parties can learn about them

Facebook users have become dramatically more protective of not just revealing who they are, but also who they know. Significantly fewer Facebook users make their Friends list public now compared to just a couple of years ago. The trend is driven by the increased attention Facebook has received since 2010 over its privacy policies, dramatic site changes, and increased awareness that third parties can learn a lot about a person by who he or she is connected with on a social networking site, according to researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

Although the study focused solely on Facebook -- more specifically, Facebook users in New York -- the findings likely point to a growing trend of users becoming increasingly concerned about how companies are collecting and using their personal data. Google, for example, has received plenty of attention of late for its changes to its privacy policies, as well as the latest revelation that it's forcing cookies on Safari users.

For the study, the research team crawled the public profile pages of 1.4 million Facebook users in New York City in March 2010 and June 2011 to determine changes to what information users made viewable on their public pages. The most significant change: In March 2010, 82.7 percent of users had their Friends lists viewable to the public. By June, the number decreased to 47.4 percent.

More Facebook users are hiding their friends to protect themselves

Notably, users consciously made the decision to hide their Friends list during that time period. During both the March 2010 and the June 2011 crawls, a user's friend list was by default public to all of the Facebook users. The researchers attribute the shift primary to "a growing awareness of the risks associated with sharing personal information online, as well as Facebook-specific privacy issues."

That growing awareness stemmed, at least in part, from the media coverage Facebook received over its privacy practices. Researchers found that the number of news articles that included the terms "Facebook" and "privacy" increased by 4.5 times between January 2009 and September 2011. The findings don't even take into consideration the attention Facebook received in May 2010 over its decision to make users' profiles public by default. Facebook did later redesign its privacy settings interface to make it easier for users to change default settings, including hiding their Friends lists.

What's not entirely clear is whether users truly grasp know how much information third parties can learn -- or infer -- about them by scrutinizing their connections on Facebook or other social networks. Recent studies have found that info can include a user's gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, political leanings, and so forth.

Even if a user hides his or her Friends list, he or she is still at the mercy of his or her friends to follow suit. Through intelligent crawling, a third party can determine who is likely friends with whom. "As more users choose to hide their friend lists in their public profile pages, it becomes increasingly more difficult (for good or for bad!) for third parties to crawl Facebook, build a social graph, and infer hidden information about users," the study said.

The takeaway is that the river of free, valuable user data spewing forth from sites and services such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Foursquare may slowly dry up as users become increasingly guarded about their privacy and that of their peers. That certainly won't stop organizations and individuals -- both well-intentioned and otherwise -- from seeking ways to learn as much as they can about would-be customers or victims.

This story, "More Facebook users are hiding their friends to protect themselves," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.