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A Step-by-Step Guide to Making Sure Your Facebook Account Is As Private As You Want It to Be

In late September, the invitation-only, pro-privacy, anti-marketing social network Ello saw a huge surge in membership after Facebook began disabling the accounts of drag performers and transgender people for violating its long-standing requirement that users go by their “real names” on the site. In what looked like a response to the backlash, Facebook quickly launched Rooms, an app that allows people to create private chat rooms without requiring them to use their Facebook login — any email address will do. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg & Co. were forcing everyone who wanted to check their Facebook messages on their phone to download another app, Facebook Messenger, which hit 500 million users on Monday.

Ello just happened to announce that it had raised $5.5 million in funding on the same day that Rooms debuted, but it doesn’t seem that there’s going to be a mass exodus from Facebook quite yet. On Thursday, Facebook gave its privacy policy a cosmetic upgrade in an attempt to make it more accessible to the casual user, but it’s still not exactly easy to parse.

Perhaps those who remain on the world’s biggest social network and don’t mind using their legal names (or haven’t yet been kicked off for not doing so) should take all this as a reminder to make sure their accounts are as private as they want them to be. Here is a guide to doing that:

Get a Privacy Checkup
At the end of the summer, Facebook began offering a “Privacy Checkup” performed by a friendly looking blue dinosaur. The three-step process gives users the opportunity to quickly “make sure [they’re] sharing with the right people.” To get the checkup, click the padlock icon in the right-hand corner of the Facebook homepage.

You’ll be asked who you want to be able to view (1) future posts to your timeline, (2) your activities on any apps you’ve linked to your account, assuming you’ve given the apps permission to post to your timeline, (3) your contact information (email addresses and phone numbers), hometown, and birthday.

While you will initially only be given the option making your timeline posts and contact information available to the “Public” or “Friends,” clicking “More Options” on the menu will let you add (or block!) “Family” and the people in your city and employer’s networks. (You can also choose to make any of your stuff visible to “Only Me” if you want a very locked-down Facebook profile.) The “Custom” option also allows you to prevent friends of people tagged in your timeline posts from seeing them, assuming your friend’s friends are not also your friends. You can also enter the names of specific people (exes, your grandmother, etc.) whom you’d rather keep unaware of your online activities and/or how to get ahold of you.

This is a great opportunity to de-link (and effectively delete) the many not-very-secure, spammy apps you’ve likely been tricked into signing up for over the years like, say, Pirates vs. Ninjas.

Do Not Stop at the Checkup  
The checkup is a good beginning, but those who want to really take control of their own Facebook privacy health should click on See More Settings,” located at the bottom of the padlock icon’s drop-down menu. Hit “Timeline and Tagging” on the left.

This is probably the most important section, privacy-wise, since it deals with the posts and photos other people tag you in. There are countless reasons why you probably don’t want all the posts or photos(!) anyone decides to tag you in to just appear on your timeline without warning.

If you want your timeline to only consist of things you post on it — and some people do — then you should select “Only Me” as the answer to, “Who can post on your timeline?” That, of course, is a little un-fun for everyone. If, like most people, you want at least some of the stuff other people tag you in or write on your timeline to appear there, select “Friends” instead. Then, just below that, turn on the option to “review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline.” The stuff to be reviewed will appear when you click “View Activity Log,” located on the bottom right-hand corner of the banner on your profile page.

Now that you have the ability to control what appears on your timeline, the questions that follow — “Who can see posts you’ve been tagged in on your timeline?” and “Who can see what others post on your timeline?” — are much easier to answer. The options are the usual suspects: “Friends,” “Friends of Friends,” “Everyone.” Choose whatever you’re comfortable with!

After that is the tagging-focused portion of “Timeline and Tagging.” As with the stuff posted to your timeline, Facebook gives you the option to approve (or not approve) tags others add to your own posts. So, if you put up a photo and someone wants to tag someone in it, you can decide whether or not to let that happen. Again, if you want a say in what people do on your timeline, you should turn this on.

Next up is, “When you’re tagged in a post, who do you want to add to the audience if they aren’t already in it?” If you’d generally like for the things you’re tagged in to be visible to all of your friends, including the friends who aren’t friends with the person who did the tagging, then select “Friends” or “Custom” and go from there.

Just below “Timeline and Tagging” on the left-hand menu is “Privacy” — hit that. The first of couple items here — who can see your future posts and the option to approve other people’s things before they appear on your timeline — have already been taken care of. The next thing to address is the question of whether you should “Limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friends of friends or Public.” If, like many of us, you’ve had Facebook for a long, long time, chances are that your timeline has some old stuff that your previous settings have left viewable to more people than you’d like. Select “Limit Past Posts,” and only your friends will be able to see those weird artifacts. Also, feel free to manually delete them from your timeline.

The options for “Who can send you friend requests?” are “Everyone” and “Friends of Friends.” Do you want complete randos to be able to friend you or not? Your call! If you tend to meet and like a lot of people who don’t know anyone you know, then select “Everyone.”

The messaging options below are similar, though there’s no way to prevent total strangers from writing to you. “Basic Filtering” will route messages from your friends and “people you may know” to your main inbox (and now, if you’re on your phone, the Facebook Messenger app), while “Strict Filtering” will direct messages from non-friends to the wasteland known as the “Other” inbox.

Who can look you up using [the email address and phone number] you provided?” On one hand, if a person has your email address and/or phone number, then they’re probably someone you know well enough to be Facebook friends with. The main exception to this rule would be schools and other programs you’re hoping to attend and, of course, potential employers. So, if you’re in the midst of some kind of application process and have already flouted Facebook’s identity rules by changing the name on your account to something that is not your full name in order to make yourself less searchable, don’t undermine your hard work by allowing admissions committee members and HR professionals to find your account using information printed on your résumé.

Do you want search engines to link to your timeline?” In other words, “Do you want your Facebook profile to show up when someone Googles your name?” If the answer is “no” — and it probably should be — then select that.

Finally, click the “Blocking” icon on the left-hand menu. This one is fairly self-explanatory. If you want to never again see or hear from an app, page, or Facebook user (or the events to which they might invite you), type the appropriate thing into the appropriate list. Don’t worry, Facebook doesn’t notify people when you block them, though they might figure out what happened if they notice that you’ve ceased to be a part of their Facebook experience. (Blockees aren’t able to tag their blockers or see what they post to their timeline, among other things.) If you’re concerned about the prospect of drama, then consider adding the person you’d really prefer to block to your “Restricted List,” which will only allow them to see the stuff you make public. 

Try to Prevent People From Breaking Into Your Account
It is a very good idea to use two-factor authentication on any website to which you give a lot of personal information. Facebook’s two-factor authentication option is called “Login Approvals,” and it can be found second from the top in “Security Settings.” Select “Require a security code to access my account from unknown browsers,” and Facebook will text you a code every time you try to sign into your account from an unfamiliar device. You then enter the code along with your password, and you’re in. Bonus: If you receive the text while you’re not trying to log in to your Facebook from somewhere strange, then you’ll know someone else might be trying to.

Related: “Login Notifications,” located above “Login Approvals,” gives you the option to receive a text or email when your account is successfully accessed in an unfamiliar location. The “Trusted Browsers” section, located second from the bottom in “Security Settings,” shows you which devices — your phone, your iPad, etc. — won’t prompt Facebook to ask you to confirm your identity when you sign in from them.

Make It More Difficult for Facebook to Use You for Advertising Purposes
Facebook ads are annoying and often creepy. While it’s not possible to eliminate them entirely —  hello, Ello! — there are ways to make it harder for Facebook to use your personal information and online activities for advertising purposes. This can help make the Facebook experience more pleasant for you and your friends, and also provides the sense of satisfaction derived from sticking it to a gigantic corporation (Facebook) and its advertising partners, if you’re into that.

Facebook’s “Ads” icon is located near the bottom of a list of options on the left-hand side in “Settings.” Click the “Edit” option to the right of the “Ads and Friends” section. There, you will learn about “social ads,” which, in Facebook’s words, “Show [your friends] an advertiser’s message alongside actions you have taken, such as liking a Page.” So, for example, if you like Chipotle’s Facebook page, then your Facebook friends are more likely to see an ad for Chipotle, complete with a little reminder that you, their friend, have given the thumbs-up to the burrito chain. If you’d rather this not happen, then scroll down to “Pair my social actions with ads for” and select “No One.” The only other option — and the default one —  is “Only My Friends.”

Next, take a look at the clumsily titled “Ads Based on Your Use of Websites or Apps Off Facebook.” This explains why, for example, you always seem to start seeing Facebook ads for the fancy shampoo or expensive watch (or whatever) you Googled shortly after you Google it. (The answer, basically, is cookies.) If you’d rather this also not happen, follow Facebook’s link to the Digital Advertising Alliance, where you can opt out of so-called “online behavioral advertising” from the over a hundred companies and advertising agencies that have decided to give you the option to do so. It’s a start! You’ll have to repeat the process for every browser you use to sign into Facebook.

Enlist Some Outside Help
At the beginning of this fall, Facebook announced the relaunch of its new ad platform, Atlas. As Kevin Roose explained, Atlas is “a tool that allows advertisers to show ads to Facebook users, targeting them using information they’ve posted to Facebook, on sites and apps that aren’t necessarily Facebook-related.” So, while adjusting your account settings as described above might prevent you from seeing some targeted ads on Facebook, it won’t stop Facebook from following you around the internet to show you similar stuff elsewhere. Browser extension Adblock immediately leapt forward to announce that it’s capable of preventing Atlas — as well as similar functions on Google and a number of other websites — from tracking you online. Adblock Plus can be downloaded right here.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Facebook Account Privacy