How to Stop Companies From Collecting and Selling Your Facebook Info

What's Hot

2 Types of Black Marks Might Vanish From Your Credit File SoonBorrow

6 Ways the Obamacare Overhaul Might Impact Your WalletInsurance

7 Dumb and Costly Moves Homebuyers MakeBorrow

This Free Software Brings Old Laptops Back to LifeMore

Obamacare Replacement Plan Gets ‘F’ Rating from Consumer ReportsFamily

Beware These 12 Common Money MistakesCredit & Debt

21 Restaurants Offering Free Food Right NowSaving Money

17 Ways to Have More Fun for Less MoneySave

House Hunters: Beware of These 6 Mortgage MistakesBorrow

30 Household Uses for Baby OilSave

25 Ways to Spend Less on FoodMore

Nearly Half of Heart-Related Deaths Linked to These 10 Foods and IngredientsFamily

5 Surprising Benefits of Exercising Outdoors in WinterFamily

10 Ways to Save When You’re Making Minimum WageSave

Boost Your Credit Score Fast With These 7 MovesCredit & Debt

7 Painless Ways to Pay Off Your Mortgage Years EarlierBorrow

The Most Sinful City in the U.S. Is … (Hint: It’s Not Vegas)Family

The True Cost of Bad CreditCredit & Debt

10 Companies With the Best 401(k) PlansGrow

This Scam Now Tops ID Theft as the No. 2 Consumer ComplaintFamily

6 Stores With Awesome Reward ProgramsFamily

6 Ways to Save More at Lowe’s and The Home DepotSave

6 Healthful Treats for Your DogFamily

New Study Ranks the Best States in the U.S.Family

Thousands of Millionaires Moving to 1 Country — and Leaving AnotherGrow

Strapped for College Costs? How to Get the Most From FAFSABorrow

6 Overlooked Ways to Save at Chick-fil-AFamily

Ask Stacy: What’s the Fastest Way to Pay Off My Mortgage?Borrow

Where to Sell Your Stuff for Top DollarAround The House

8 Ways to Get a Good Price on a Shiny New AutoCars

Ask Stacy: How Do I Start Over?Credit & Debt

Secret Cell Plans: Savings Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint Don’t Want You to Know AboutFamily

30 Awesome Things to Do in RetirementCollege

14 Super Smart Ways to Save on TravelSave

The Rich Prefer Modest Cars — Should You Join Them?Cars

You’ll Soon Pay More to Shop at CostcoSave

10 Ways to Save When Your Teen Starts DrivingFamily

Your online personal information and Internet habits are being collected and sold – possibly for more than $1,000 a year. Here’s a simple way to guard your privacy.

If you want to keep a secret, don’t put any trace of it online. That’s something ex-CIA director David Petraeus just learned the hard way. But our lives are increasingly digital, and the government recognizes it.

In July, Congress asked nine data brokerage firms – including credit reporting agencies – what consumer information they collect, how they do it, and whether they sell it to third parties. On Nov. 8, it released those companies’ responses.

You can read the lengthy original letters and the responses here, but investigative journalism site ProPublica sums things up nicely in their article Yes, Companies Are Harvesting – and Selling – Your Facebook Profile:

Data companies of course, do not stop with the information on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Intelius, which offers everything from a reverse phone number look up to an employee screening service, said it also collects information from Blogspot, WordPress, MySpace, and YouTube.

This information includes individual email addresses and screen names, web site addresses, interests, and professional history, Intelius said. It offers a “Social Network Search” on its website that allows you to enter someone’s name and see a record of social media URLs for that person.

And that’s just the start. Companies like Acxiom collect likes, shares, and recommendations to build out a profile of consumers on behalf of their clients – something they say benefits consumers. (In return for our data, they say, we get cheap or free access to services like Facebook and more relevant advertising.) In its response to Congress, Acxiom [PDF] said its clients in 2009 included the following…

  • 47 Fortune 100 clients
  • 8 of the top 10 credit card issuers
  • 4 of the top 5 retail banks
  • 7 of the top 10 telecom/media companies
  • 5 of the top 10 retailers
  • 7 of the top 10 automotive manufacturers
  • 3 of the top 10 brokerage firms
  • 6 of the top 10 technology companies
  • 3 of the top 5 pharmaceutical manufacturers
  • 4 of the top 10 life/health insurance providers
  • 7 of the top 10 property and casualty insurers
  • 7 of the top 10 lodging companies
  • 3 of the top 5 domestic airlines
  • 6 of the top 10 U.S. hotels
  • 4 of the top 5 gaming companies
  • 5 of the 13 largest U.S. federal government agencies
  • Both major national political parties

Just how much are we worth to these companies? And is there anything we can do about how they get and use our info?

Fixing your privacy settings

The answer to both questions might come from a relatively new tool (released last month) called Privacyfix. It’s a browser plug-in for Firefox and Chrome that analyzes your privacy settings across data-rich social networking sites like Google and Facebook, and any other websites you’ve visited.

When you first install it, you’ll be greeted with a page that tells you what percentage of sites you’ve visited Facebook tracks (for me, 86 percent) and an estimate of how much you’re worth to Facebook per year (just $3.32 here – sorry, Zuckerberg).

Along the right side, you’ll see a number of settings you can “fix,” and each will be explained as you move your cursor over it. These include excluding your Facebook profile from search engine results, blocking your friends from inadvertently sharing your personal information, making your postings private (visible only to friends) by default, and so on. Clicking on any of these will take you step-by-step through the process, explaining why you would want to change the setting and what the potential downside is. You don’t have to “fix” anything you don’t want to, and you can always undo the changes.

When you’re ready to go to the next section, you’ll see a blue “next” button below the right-side column of Facebook issues you can fix. Or, in a bar along the top, you can skip to whatever section you want.

You’ll go through similar Google settings next. (Google tracks data on 37 percent of websites I visit and makes around $1,174 per year from ads at my activity level.) Then, you’ll move on to a list of other websites you’ve visited, categorized by icon into “Websites sharing data” and “Websites with other issues.”

The fix button here lets you automatically generate an email letter requesting the removal of your personal information on every site you specify. Meanwhile, moving your cursor over any icon shows you the particular problems with that site – for instance, whether it shares information with third parties, whether it notifies you about it, and whether it is known to honor deletion requests.

Just because a website’s icon is on the list doesn’t mean it’s bad: Many of mine say “personal data is not generally shared” and “deletion requests are honored” with green checkmarks, and usually the only red caution mark is next to “no assurance of notice if data is requested.” But if that data is not shared, I’m not too concerned about hypothetical notices.

Next you’ll go to a page on cookies, tiny files stored on your computer that can keep you logged into sites, save your preferences, store passwords, or do what Privacyfix is worried about: track you. The tool can help you delete these cookies in a snap.

It can also help you block them from tracking you in the future. However, this fix involves using a signal called Do Not Track, which may cause some websites to not load correctly, or sometimes at all. It took me a while to realize this was the culprit, so I wouldn’t recommend turning the feature on unless you’re sure to remember it can cause problems. (Some also argue that enabling Do Not Track will cut into advertising revenue sites depend on to operate, and ultimately make them charge users or put them out of business.)

The last section of Privacyfix is Healthbar. Enabling it will add an icon to the top of your browser which you can click to access a dashboard which can quickly check a website’s privacy flaws, delete cookies, provide a history of privacy concerns (on Facebook, it points to data exposures and a government settlement over privacy promises), or fiddle with any of the settings you previously adjusted. The color of the icon will change depending on the relative privacy of the website – sites Privacyfix thinks handle your info smartly will be marked green, while riskier sites will turn the icon partially or completely orange.

Privacyfix isn’t doing much savvy computer users can’t do themselves, but it is making complicated privacy issues a lot simpler to navigate for the rest of us. Even if you’ve tried to figure out Facebook’s crazy privacy options on your own, you might find this exercise eye-opening – I sure did.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

I know... every site you visit wants you to subscribe to their newsletter. But our news and advice is actually worth reading! For 25 years, I've been making people richer without making their eyes glaze over. You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it!


Read Next: 10 Key Facts to Test Your Credit Card IQ

Check Out Our Hottest Deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 2,016 more deals!