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How to sniff out private information on Facebook

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Facebook users who like to control who gets to see your account details, take note: political views, religious back ground and other sensitive details may be wide open to prying eyes even though you've configured your profile so its viewable only to designated friends.

That's because the user setting that allows only designated friends to view a user's profile has no effect on whether the contents of that profile can be searched by the Facebook community at large. Users who want to block their profiles from being searched must go through an additional step.

It's hard to imagine why someone would want to block strangers from reading their profile and at the same time opt to have their profile contents searchable by any Facebook user. And it's even harder to understand why Facebook search by default indexes profile contents, rather than the other way around.

But that's the way Facebook has been doing things since at least September, according to Chris Soghoian, a graduate student at Indiana University who blogs about the quirk here.

"Users cannot be expected to know that the contents of their private profiles can be mined via searches, and thus, very few do set the search permissions associated with their profile," Soghoian writes.

Soghoian's observation is one more example how digital information presumed innocuous can come back to bite us in the ass. As employers, co-workers and others get wise to the trove of personal details volunteered on MySpace, LiveJournal and elsewhere, it pays to think before posting. Or in the case of Facebook, to pay close attention to privacy settings.

To demonstrate, Soghoian created an account for an individual named "Chris Privacy Soghoian" whose politics are socially conservative, lists his religious background as Catholic and claims to live in London. While the account is set so only friends can view the profile, anyone who puts "Chris Privacy Soghoian" and "Christian - Catholic" into the advanced search engine (and evidently, who belongs to one of Soghoian's networks) will get a result showing a match.

For more than 24 hours Facebook representatives maintained radio silence in response to a call and email from us asking about the design of their privacy settings. That left us wondering aloud in a previous version of this story if we'd have been better off searching through their profiles.

On late Wednesday, a spokeswoman finally emailed to say the company has updated its advanced search function so that profile information designated private will no longer be included in search results. ®

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