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How to stay safe with social games on Facebook

Review your privacy settings on Facebook.

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GamePro contributor Pete Davison wades into the nasty side of social gaming where your private information can fall into the wrong hands. Here's how to protect yourself while you game on Facebook.

Social game developer Zynga faces a class action lawsuit from Facebook gamers claiming the company shared their information with advertising networks. If true, the gamers have a strong case: companies are prohibited from sharing user IDs or personal information with third parties both by Facebook's Terms of Service and Zynga's own privacy policy.

The lawsuits force gamers to take a closer look at the nature of privacy on Facebook. If developers can't be counted on to keep your information safe while you play their games, what can you do?

Duleepa "Dups" Wijayawardhana, CEO of popular "social stock market" game Empire Avenue, says you should redefine "private information."

"I think one of the first questions a consumer should ask themselves is not 'what is public' but 'what is private,'" says Dups. "If you are online in today's world, whether it is email, Twitter, Facebook or Empire Avenue, the definition of 'private' is the more important consideration. Even with email on Gmail, the reality is that what you say is not just between you and another person but really living on a server served by technicians. I'm not saying [the technicians] will look at your stuff, I'm just saying nothing is truly private."

Marcin Kawa, game designer on social soccer game Footy! by Power Challenge, thinks you should review your privacy settings on Facebook.

"I believe that as long as you spend a minute or two managing your privacy settings and invite only people you know to be a part of your social network, you'll be fine," he says. "Sharing everything to strangers is never a good idea. I would also advise against any form of 'add me' activity--something which is very popular on Facebook. Adding someone who is a total stranger to your social network just because they play the same game you do basically means you don't care about your privacy."

The most important step in managing your privacy while using Facebook games is to actually read what the application is requesting permission to do when you first add it.

The most common thing a Facebook app wants to access is your basic information.

"When a game is asking for your basic information," explains Kawa, "you actually don't share that much. For example, if you have your privacy settings set up properly then I, as a developer, won't even know how old you are or where you are from. There's no hidden agenda."

The privacy settings Kawa refers to can be found by clicking on "Account" at the top right of any Facebook page and selecting "Privacy Settings" from the pop-up menu.

Note that two pieces of information are always public on Facebook, regardless of your privacy settings: your name and your profile picture. Beyond that, you can control each category in privacy settings by checking Customize Settings for specific categories ("Everyone," "Friends," "Friends of Friends," etc.). Checking the "Everyone" column on the page means that anything that appears here could potentially be accessed by an application. Not only that, but this information is also freely viewable by anyone on the Internet, even by non-Facebook users.

There's no "correct" setting for the privacy options, Dups points out. "The first and foremost thing a user should do is check to see what information they are putting up, and are they comfortable with the world seeing it," he says.

Once that's done, Dups says you should check the game itself to see which pieces of information the game is sharing. If you're not sure, ask the developer through the customer support system.

"I've seen everything from dummy accounts to withholding information," Dups says. "Ultimately everything is valid once you answer the question, 'What do I consider private?' You can have fun online with any of those options. If you want to make meaningful connections though, some level of trust is going to be needed. In this day and age, complete walled-off privacy may not get the results you want."

Questions like these seem intimidating when all you really want to do is play a video game, but in a way, protecting your privacy is almost like playing a game because you're considering risks versus rewards.

That's how Michael Fertik, CEO and founder of ReputationDefender, sees it. His company specializes in investigating online privacy and user reputation; essentially, the company Google-stalks you to find out how the Internet feels about you based on what information is available.

Fertik asks, "Is it worth giving up personal details about yourself, your friends, and your family so that you can take a quiz or play a game? If the answer is yes, go ahead and install the app. Control what information is available to apps and sites your friends use by going to Privacy Settings > Applications and Websites > Info accessible through your friends."

Besides protecting your information from social games, you've also got to protect your Facebook page itself. New Facebook regulations prevent games from publishing your or your friends' in-game notifications directly to your Wall, but you can still inflict (or suffer from) "game spam" by wantonly clicking "publish" whenever a game prompts you to. Use that function wisely if you don't want to lose Facebook friends, and double-check whether or not the game will also post the information to its own website.

"An application which automatically posts without your permission violates terms and conditions, so be careful," Dups warns. "Typically, for example, with Empire Avenue, we make it an action that the user must explicitly approve before posting to another network. If you are willing to share with Facebook and you want to have a meaningful experience then sharing with another site is not a bad option."

Ultimately, protecting your information in social games is a matter of common sense; if you wouldn't tell something to a stranger in the street, don't make it publicly visible online. If you find that something you're not comfortable sharing is showing up in your game, check your Facebook privacy settings and use Fertik's "common sense" guidelines to set up the most secure profile possible:

  • Don't use your full birth date on Facebook. Identity thieves can get more information about you with it and event gain access to your bank accounts.
  • If a new app looks like a spam or scam app, don't click on it. Fertik says phony apps usually try to hook you with something like "You won't believe this!" or "You have to see it to believe it!"
  • If a friend sends you a request to download an app like that, privately contact that friend and find out if they really did send you that request. It could be a spambot sending out messages and your friend needs to know about it so they can secure their account.
  • Don't download apps from outside the US because they could collect, lose, abuse or sell it and there'd be nothing you could do. If the app maker is in the US, it's probably safer, and at least you have legal options (like that class action Zynga lawsuit) if something goes wrong. [Editor's note, this author is based in the US].
  • Always read games' privacy policies carefully. Find out what control they have over your data and where it goes.
  • Know how much private data is out there about you. Google-stalk yourself or get someone like PrivacyDefender to do it for you.
  • Use your privacy settings. If you lose control of your Facebook ID, you're exposing information about who you are, where you live, what you like, who your friends are, and what you do for a living.

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