Facebook privacy settings to change now

If you can’t quit Facebook, you can try to reclaim some control by changing these key privacy settings

An illustrated collage with the Facebook logo and security icons.
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post)
7 min

Let’s face it. Facebook is hard to quit.

Many of us stay on it even when we know that the company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, tracks much of what we do online. It has so much information about us that it can show ads with such eerie accuracy that many people believe it’s using smartphone microphones to eavesdrop.

But Facebook is also the connective tissue between nearly 3 billion people around the world. If you can’t leave, at least you can make your data as private as possible.

The service’s privacy settings are always shifting. In the 17 years it has existed, the Menlo Park, Calif. company has regularly added and removed options, and settled on its current lengthy list of settings organized in a few overlapping ways.

Facebook offers a “Privacy Checkup” that’s easy to use. However, it skips over some important advertising changes you should note. There’s also a “Privacy Shortcuts” page that includes more, but not all options. Go ahead and do both, but make sure you check all of these settings when you’re done.

And here’s our step-by-step guide. Our recommendations are based on the Web version of Facebook, but all of these settings can also be changed in the mobile app versions. Start here or click on the links to go directly to the setting for each option.

If you only do one thing

Stop Facebook from targeting ads based on what you do online.

Facebook doesn’t charge users. Instead, it makes money off them through data including what other sites they’ve visited, apps they’ve used and products they’ve bought in the real world. By turning this setting off, you start to reclaim some power in your relationship with the company by limiting how it profits off you.

  • Go to Settings & Privacy → Settings → Ads → Ad Settings → “Data about your activity from partners.”
  • Turn this off for your Facebook and Instagram accounts. (The toggle is gray if off, blue if on.)

If you’re still concerned about privacy

Limit who can see all your information and posts shared on Facebook in the past.

Many of us have been on Facebook for over a decade, posting photos from high school through adulthood. Facebook’s changing defaults mean many of our past posts are public and we have no idea. These settings will make sure the past is private if you want them to be.

  • Go Settings & Privacy → Privacy Checkup → “Who can see what you share.”
  • On the first screen, scroll down and make sure all your profile information is set to “Friends of Only Me” unless you have a reason for it being public.
  • On the next screen, make sure “Future Posts” and “Stories” are set to “Friends.” Then hit the button for “Limit Past Posts” and select “Limit.” This will ensure no straggler posts from your past are still visible to the public.
Turn off Face Recognition for photos and videos

Facial recognition is a fast-growing feature that has unknown privacy implications for the future. Stay safe and turn it off now.

Don’t let anyone tag you in a photo without approval
  • Settings & Privacy → Settings → Profile and Tagging → Reviewing: set to “On” for both items.
Stop Facebook from tracking your location
  • Settings & Privacy → Settings → Location → Location History: set to “Off”
Lock down your other ad settings

Even if Facebook can’t target ads based on what you do off the site, it can still use the data it already collected about you on the site. You can limit that with these settings.

  • Settings and Privacy → Settings → Ads (you’ll have to scroll down) → Ad Settings.
  • Under “Categories used to reach you” make sure to de-select all details about yourself.
  • Under “Interest categories” and “Other categories,” remove anything listed.
  • Click “Ads shown off Facebook” and change the toggle to “Not Allowed.”
  • And under “Social” select “Only me” for who can see what ads you have liked.
  • There is one more category in this page called “Audience Based Advertising” that controls when third-party companies can use lists they already have to target or exclude you from ads on Facebook. Unfortunately, it’s both time consuming and never ending. The only way to opt out is to click on each company name, click the line that says why they are included (like “They uploaded or used a list to reach you”) and then click Don’t Allow. Repeat for every company in this section and check back for new additions if you have ample free time.

If you want to be extra cautious

Short of deleting your account, the most you can do for your privacy is delete all your past Facebook posts and “disconnect” Facebook from things you do off the site. This gives Facebook the least possible amount of information about you.

First, save your old posts and photos someplace other than Facebook.

Deleting old Facebook content cannot be undone, so if you want to have a record of your years of Facebook posts, likes and photos, back it up first. Do this before deleting an account forever or the next step.

  • Settings & Privacy → Settings → Your Facebook Information → Transfer a Copy of Your Information. Here you can send photos, posts and notes to Google, Dropbox or other services.
  • Settings & Privacy → Settings → Your Facebook Information → Download Your Information. You’ll see a dizzyingly long list of all the kinds of information you’ve shared with Facebook over the years. You can leave all the boxes checked or remove things that you don’t think need to be remembered forever, like polls. Under “Select Dates” choose “All Time” and click the “Create File” button. This will save the information to your computer.
Delete all your past Facebook activity
  • Settings & Privacy → Settings → Your Facebook Information → Activity Log → Manage Activity. Click the box that says “All” then click “Trash.” You can scroll down first to try to load all your past activity before selecting All, or delete it in chunks until it is all gone. Repeat for Activity you’ve been tagged in and Interactions. If you continue posting and liking in the future, you’ll have to go back and clean up again.
“Disconnect” and delete “Off-Facebook” activity

Outside businesses also share data with Facebook. You can cut down on those transactions with this setting.

  • Settings & Privacy → Settings → Your Facebook Information → Off-Facebook Activity.
  • Click on the link on the right that says “Manage Your Off Facebook Activity,” then click on the link on the right that says “Manage Future Activity.” You’ll have to click yet another button that says “Manage Future Activity,” then you are met with a purposefully confusing option. If the toggle next to “Future Off-Facebook Activity” is blue, click it. You’ll be promoted to click “Turn Off” again. Now the toggle should be gray, which means it is off.
  • Go back to Settings & Privacy → Settings → Your Facebook Information → Off-Facebook Activity.
  • Now click on the link on the right that says “Clear History.” You’ll be shown a warning and another button that says “Clear History.” Click and you are done. For now.

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