Social, Apps, and Your Data: A Beginners Guide to Online Privacy

A Social Media Star is Born

Congratulations! You are an Internet Celebrity. At least, that’s the way you should get used to being treated.

There are companies all over the world that want to get to know you. Do you have a favorite color? What’s your favorite place to grab a cup of coffee? What toothpaste do you use? Why do you buy xx brand kitty litter over zz brand kitty litter? Are you an early riser or do you prefer to sleep in? Dogs or cats? Lefty or Righty, or are you a switch hitter?

They want to know everything there is to know about you, because you are a real life person.

And just like the paparazzi chasing a celebrity off the cliff to get a better look at that designer dress, they will stop at nothing to get the data they’re looking for.

happy people using mobile smart phone


Why Social Networks Exploit You

If being exploited by (enter any social media platform or data mining app here) is news to you, please know that online security experts have discussed the risks and issues of privacy for decades.

In fact, the highly esteemed security issues author Bruce Schneier, famously said at the 2010 RSA Europe Security conference, “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not- you’re the product. Its customers are the advertisers.”

Surely it isn’t as bleak as all that? Facebook is a warm and fuzzy platform where you can maintain connections with your friends and family no matter the distance; share and chat and (occasionally) squabble.

Facebook, and other social networks, surely care about the people connecting on their platforms?

The answer really shouldn’t surprise any of us but it’s a big, fat, NOPE.

The more users they have on their platform, the more they can charge in advertising. Similarly, the more users they access to, the more data they amass the more clever ways platforms and apps find to lure you into giving them more and more data.

Your data is priceless.

Social Smarts

What can you do to protect your data from social networks and apps? If you are VERY concerned about your data, the simple answer is, don’t sign up for social. Don’t use apps. Encrypt all the things. Don’t install stuff on your phone.

The only way to win this game is not to play.

This is not to say that NOTHING about you will show up online. It invariably will: but far less of your info will turn up online than any of your peers when you resist the temptations of social.

Sigh…but that’s a bit boring. Sure, you know you are the product. So is your best friend, so is your hairdresser, so is your mum. Social networks do provide a phenomenal way to engage with your community and a handy way to stay in touch. Who doesn’t want that?

The trick here is to find a way to make this work for you without hemorrhaging data to the bloodsuckers waiting in the wings.

Man hand hold touch screen smart phone in pastry and cake shop.


Simple Steps to Keep (Some) Control of Your Data

You don’t have to run away screaming from the online social sphere. Here are just a few things you can do to maintain some semblance of online privacy and data control:

Inform Thyself: Know Thine Enemy

Before you sign up on a social network for personal use, learn something about the company. Who are they and what are they about? While some platforms are simply vying to be the biggest and most widely adopted (as they harvest and share your data), others, such as privacy minded platforms Diaspora and MeWe (who’s infamous hashtag #Not4Sale sums it up nicely) seem to be more focused on the community aspect by focusing on alternative methods of generating revenue, i.e. they are committed to making money without selling your data.

Read the User Agreement

…no, really. Please. Read the terms of use, the fine print, all of it. Familiarize yourself and make an educated decision if you want whatever platform or app to have access to your information.

Manually Adjust Your Account Settings

Many platforms including Facebook give you some control on how you share, who you share with, what apps your account is connected to, etc. Visit Facebook’s account settings page and poke around. You might be very surprised, or even alarmed, at what your settings are. This is a great way to take some control over your account.

Some settings are less of a problem on your computer but more so on your phone. Don’t forget to disable things like access to your geolocation data directly through the app.

The Dark Side: Free Quizzes

The Internet is lousy with cutesy little quizzes. In just 1 question, we can tell you your age, height, and gender. What famous actor will you most resemble in twenty years? Find out what bean, dog, country, woodland creature, 80’s Hair Band you are in just a few simple steps (lima, Aussie, Lichtenstein, deer, Motley Crue).

Whether it’s curiosity, conformity, or boredom that drove you into the arms of a quiz that claims to determine the color of your Ego, just don’t. It’s time to say no.

They may appear harmless but many of these quizzes are harvesting you for information. If they are “free” assume that they are terrible.

An Ounce of Prevention

As with most things, doing your due diligence to keep your information safe early and often to prevent disaster is key. Your data is precious. You are valuable- not because your presence makes social platforms see dollar signs, but because inherently you just are. It’s time to stem the flood of exploitation. The Internet can be a scary place, but it doesn’t always have to be.