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Calm down! Facebook isn't sharing your profile pic

Facebook is not allowing third-party advertisers to use any profile pictures, or any of your photos, without your permission. The social network hasn't allowed it in the past, and it's not happening now.

An outdated Account Setting on the site is the focus of the latest Facebook freakout making the rounds. Specifically, it's the Social Ads setting that Facebook spokesperson Brandon McCormick confirmed via phone is an artifact from a similar "scandal" from 2009.

Yes, yes Facebook is regularly called out on how it uses user information, but this time the only thing it may be guilty of is lax housekeeping.

A recent Wonder How To column posted and/or referenced on tech and news sites  that described how to change this "new" Social Ads setting kicked off the kerfuffle. The article has since been updated, because as McCormick described the Social Ads setting: "It's old and it's no longer applicable."

"Third parties do not use third-party profile pictures," McCormick said.

If this statement rings a bell, it's because all the very best urban legends are based in fact. 

Two years ago, Peter Smith of Lynchburg, Va., got a little surprise on Facebook when his wife's photo showed up on an ad inviting him to meet hot singles in his area.

As my colleague Bob Sullivan reported in Red Tape Chronicles, the picture "had been swooped up by a company advertising with the social media giant and used to generate an advertisement. She had no idea her image could be used that way, and until her husband spotted the ad, she was unaware that she'd become a model for an online dating company." And Smith's wife wasn't the only unwitting model.

"The ads that spooked people were from rogue networks that have been dealt with," Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt told Sullivan. "The ads were removed, some ad networks were banned from Facebook, and developers were warned."

This is around the time Facebook added the now-antiquated Social Ads button, McCormick said, adding that the button can be removed.

If you're thinking right now, "Hey! My friends totally show up in ads on my Facebook page," you are correct. But as creepy or as awesome as you may find this "social context" (that's what Facebook calls it), the way your friends are showing up in ads is nothing like the 2009 incident.

Back then, rogue ad networks scooped up random photos with no intelligent design as to who gets to see them. Smith, for example, happened upon his wife in a singles ad by coincidence. Facebook users with no connection to Smith's wife may've seen that same ad, too.  

In its official statement on this latest kerfuffle, Facebook breaks down how the social context adds (which have been on the site in various forms for two years) work now:

We do not put peoples' photos in ads.  Just like everything on Facebook, we show you the relevant social context that goes with content you share.  This is true for news stories you share, places you check into and it is also true for the ads we show.  If you like the Page of a brand or product, we may show your name or profile picture below the ad to provide your confirmed friends that social context.  We think this makes the ads you see more relevant and personalized based on what your real friends are doing. We never share your personally identifiable information, including your profile picture, with advertisers and we provide a variety of tools that let you control how information is shared.

Here's another thing you may want to know: The ads you see on your page are not the ads your friends see when they look at your Facebook fan page. For example, you may see some "social context" on your Facebook page, heppin' you to the fact that BFF Bob "Likes" Starbucks. Any other BFFs who visit your page, however, won't see that Bob "Likes" Starbucks. All the "social context" they see on Facebook has been specially designed for them.

If "social context" is a little too "Minority Report" for your liking, you're not alone. But that's a whole other "Oprah."  Whether such personalized advertising even works is yet another hotly debated topic.

The moral of this very special Digital Life is this: Educate yourself about your Facebook settings. One reason we're easily spooked regarding Facebook and our privacy is that historically there are things to be spooked about — though certainly Facebook isn't the only one iffy with your information. So if this recent Facebook furor inspired you to pay a little more attention to your Facebook privacy settings, you're better for it.

So while you're on the topic, take the time to head on over to the ACLU's dotRights website and update yourself on the information you leave laying around online, even without Facebook's help. They've got cartoons!

More on Facebook and privacy:

Helen A.S. Popkin is always going blah blah blah about Internet privacy, then she asks you to join her on Facebook and Twitter ... because that's how she rolls.