Researchers analysed the privacy practices of 5,076 Facebook users over six years and found that changes to the site’s privacy policies caused the users to be more prone to public disclosure and less protective of their privacy.

The Carnegie Mellon University researchers found users were quite actively protective of their privacy during their first four years on the site between 2005-2011. However they found people became more inclined to overshare aspects of their life after Facebook changed its social networking platform in 2009 and 2010. In fact public disclosures actually increased over that period .

The changes were so influential that they actually stopped people from returning to their old, protective ways.

“This result highlights the power of the environment in affecting individual choices,” the researchers wrote. “The entity that controls the structure (in this case, Facebook), ultimately remains able to affect how actors make choices in that environment.”

The study also found that part of people’s inclination towards violating their own privacy rules were caused by misinformation about Facebook’s privacy policies.

The researchers found “qualitative evidence that, over time, the amount and scope of personal information that Facebook users revealed to their Facebook friends (that is, to other connected profiles) actually increased,” they wrote.

“In doing so, howeve, and in parallel to their reducing disclosures to stranger profiles, users ended up increasing their personal disclosures to other entities on the network as well: third-party apps, (indirectly) advertisers, and Facebook itself. Sometimes, this occurred without users’
explicit consent or even awareness.”

They concluded that access to “increasingly granular” privacy settings increase users’ sense of control “and selectively direct their attention towards the sharing taking place with other members of the network covered under those settings.”

“In turn, perceptions of control over personal data and misdirection of users’ attention have been linked in the literature to increases in disclosures of sensitive information to strangers,” they wrote.

In an email to The Huffington Post, a Facebook spokesperson said “Independent research had verified that the vast majority of people on Facebook are engaging with and using our straightforward and powerful privacy tools – allowing them to control what they’re sharing and with whom they’re sharing.”

The study is the first to follow users’ Facebook activity over a long period of time. The researchers noted that their focus on early Facebook adopters and that the study only analysed the publicly disclosed information with the consent of the participants, all of whom were Carnegie Mellon undergrads that and as such “extrapolations to the generation Facebook population should be considered with caution.”

“On the other hand, its longitudinal nature offers an unprecedented view of the long term evolution of privacy and disclosure behaviour on a social network site,” they wrote.