Facebook Timeline a new privacy test

— -- When Lisa Hope King created her Facebook account in 2004, things were much simpler. Facebook was a new website with a straightforward format. King's status as a sophomore at Rutgers University granted her access to a social-networking site aimed at college students.

"It felt very personal," King, 27, says. The amount of information Facebook members could share was minimal.

Now, members can share everything from their employer to their current location. Facebook's coming overhaul of its members' profile pages will more prominently show users' Facebook pasts all the way back to the creation of their accounts.

The feature, dubbed Timeline, will roll out to all 800 million Facebook members and is designed to give a more comprehensive view of people's online identities, the company says. Facebook declined to say when it would launch. The come-on to members: "Tell your life story with a new kind of profile."

As with past moves, Facebook's plans are sparking privacy concerns among some members and privacy advocates.

The new emphasis on past posts means Facebook users have to be vigilant about screening who sees old posts to prevent potentially uncomfortable situations, especially for those who have matured since creating their account as students and would rather leave the past in the past.

"I don't think something I did four years ago is really representative of who I am today," says King, who works for a New York financial services firm.

Up until now, Facebook accounts have focused on the most recent posts. With the new profile format, the most recent Facebook activities will be at the top. But as users go back in time, Timeline will summarize past posts — emphasizing the photos and status updates with the most "likes" or comments.

The new profile gets rid of the "practical obscurity" that has always been part of Facebook, says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Things, over time, get harder to find, and that is sometimes a good thing," he says.

Privacy concerns

Rotenberg's privacy advocacy group has voiced concerns about Timeline and other Facebook features in recent letters to the Federal Trade Commission. Rotenberg worries people won't take the time to screen all their past posts and says that Facebook should honor its past commitments to privacy settings.

Privacy concerns run highest among those who frequent Facebook less often, according to a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. Just 26% of respondents who use the social site at least daily said they were "very concerned" about privacy. That compares with 35% who are "very concerned" and use the social network at least once a week, and 39% who use Facebook less often.

The kind of photos college students post of themselves at parties aren't necessarily the pictures they want others to see when they're entering the workforce, Rotenberg says. Facebook plans to opt all of its users into Timeline and put the responsibility on them to carefully review every bit of past information, he notes.

"I don't think people would really take the time to do all that," Rotenberg says, "and I think Facebook knows that."

When users first get Timeline, they will have five days to emphasize or hide aspects of their profiles, Facebook says. And users can still add and delete aspects of their Timeline after they're published.

Facebook declined to comment on its opt-in decision and questions raised over privacy settings.

"People should take advantage of the time for curation to make sure their profiles look the way they want them to," says Rebecca Jeschke, a digital rights analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

People have shown that they really want privacy and transparency, Jeschke says. "It looks like these steps Facebook is taking with the Timeline are steps in the right direction."

'Digital grooming'

Keeping tabs on her profile page as Facebook evolves is nothing new for King, who calls herself a "digital groomer."

She goes through the information on her account every few weeks and deletes statuses, messages and other things — such as posts on an ex-boyfriend's wall — that she doesn't want to keep on her Facebook page. "I've always been a cautious Internet user," King says. "I've always been really aware that anything I put up is forever."

Timeline creates an opportunity for everyone to become this aware about their privacy online, says Chester Wisniewski, senior security adviser at security firm Sophos.

"There's definitely no new risk exposed by this feature," he says. "A lot of people just don't realize how much information they've shared in the past."

"If, for your privacy, you wouldn't say something about yourself in a pub, you shouldn't share it on Facebook," Wisniewski advises. And the same goes for Twitter, LinkedIn and any other networking site.

But it seems that Facebook continually encourages people to share more and more personal information, says Nadia Bhuiyan, 23.

"I would definitely change the amount of information I would put on there," says Bhuiyan, a University of Florida graduate student. "I don't really want my biography up there."

She doesn't want people to see how many pictures she was tagged in or how many she took in a given year or how many friend requests she got.

And she said Facebook's planned change to members' profiles probably will limit how often she visits her friends' profile pages.

"I'm looking for things they did that day, not what they did in 2009," Bhuiyan says.

Thomas Kerr-Vanderslice, 22, says he doesn't use Facebook for personal use as much as he did when he was in college. But a large portion of his job at a small Washington, D.C., lobbying firm is spent on Facebook and other social-networking sites.

He has no plans to spend time taking information off his profile once it changes to the Timeline. And he's never been nervous about sharing information online, including where he lives, his employer and his birthday. "If identity theft was a major concern, I wouldn't be on Facebook."