So What Can We Do?
Few people read all of the fine print in any contractual statement. And given the very design of social media systems, most detailed information is proprietary in nature and rarely made broadly available. Perhaps one of the most interesting, even egregious, of these is the Google contracts with organizations and schools for use of their suite of Google web-based productivity and emailing systems. In a 2015 article of mine (against-the-grain.com/2015/04/atg-original-google-deals-privacy-targeting-education-and-market-positioning-part-2-of-2-parts), Chris Jay Hoffnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology’s information privacy programs and senior fellow to the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic, notes that “there are a few bright spots here: the constant profiling is being driven by venture funding. Companies are in a ‘collect it all and see if anything is worth something later’ model.”
One general rule is that applications that you pay for are typically better for privacy. This is because the incentive conflict issue is better addressed—when you pay a company for a product, they are less likely to make you the product. So, I am a big fan of Apple, because their products are less tied to turning its own customers into targets for advertising. I also think it is important to realize that privacy-invasive services are privacy invasive because the designers made them that way. It is almost always an affirmative choice to build in massive data collection and surveillance. So many services we use today could be implemented in a more privacy-friendly manner with little or no effect on performance.
Once the cookies are clicked or the site is loaded, the data is captured. And that data isn’t yours; it belongs to the company behind that application. However, there are steps that can be taken to reduce your exposure and retain some degree of control over your online experiences.
The default privacy settings on many social media websites make it so your posts, tweets, and photos are visible to anyone—and, of course, to the system which retains this information for its own purposes. Even after you delete posts/pictures or other information from your page, your information can live on, as others may have re-posted or continue to share the information.
In a few cases, governments are starting to take an interest in social media privacy. In Great Britain, it is now illegal to screenshot Snapchat picture messages and pass them on to others without the consent of those being photographed (independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/it-is-illegal-to-screenshot-snapchats-without-permission-government-minister-says-a6955451.html): “Under UK copyright law, it would be unlawful for a Snapchat user to copy an image and make it available to the public without the consent of the image owner,” says digital economy and culture minister Ed Vaizey. He adds, “The image owner would be able to sue anyone who does this for copyright infringement.” In U.S. copyright law, however, the “owner” is, in most social media cases, the company, not the individual.
Researchers are finding that the very design of social me dia sites makes it easier for users to find themselves drawn into the social circles and to be less concerned about their personal security or privacy. Mina Tsay-Vogel, communica tions professor at Boston University, worked with colleagues to study the “effects of Facebook use on privacy perceptions and self-disclosure behaviors across a 5-year period from 2010 to 2015” (“Social Media Cultivating Perceptions of Privacy: A Five-Year Longitudinal Analysis of Privacy Attitudes and Self-Disclosure Behaviors Among Facebook Users,” New Media & Society ; DOI 10.1177/1461444816660731). Their research found that the “socializing role of Facebook in cultivating more relaxed privacy attitudes, subsequently [increased] self-disclosure in both offline and online contexts.”
Total privacy is impossible today. However, you can make some adjustments to your social media settings. Here are some tips and techniques to help you better protect your privacy, your information, and your reputation.
Check Yourself Out!
In Facebook and some other systems, you can view your profile as others see it. Doing this occasionally may help you to adjust or better manage what you want to have made available. Googling yourself is another worthwhile venture. If you have a lot of results in Google, you can use additional search terms to look at particular aspects of your professional or personal life. If you have relatives who share information broadly or are ardent genealogists, you may find background information on you, your family, and history made available through a variety of websites. There isn’t necessarily anything you can do about information about yourself online, but if it’s there for the world to see, you might as well know about it.
Pass on These Cookies!
As we wander the internet, we pick up cookies along the way. These are messages that web servers send to your web browser as you roam the web. Your computer browser stores each of these messages in a file called cookie.txt. As you move to another website, your browser sends the cookie back to the server although the TXT files stay on your computer. These TXT files carry information about your visit to the webpage, including any information that you have voluntarily entered while on that site, such as your name, personal information, or interests.
These cookies can track your movements online, but also may link to advertising companies through cookies that don’t come from the site you’re visiting. These companies manage the provision of the banner ads websites use for income. The number of cookies on your computer at any time may sur prise you. Each browser has its own method to view or control cookies on your computer. Browsers (Google Chrome, Mozilla, Ubuntu, etc.) allow you to control which sites you allow to leave cookies on your computer, how long they are stored, and any options to erase them. You can either check the help files on your browser or search for information on cookies for your specific browser using a search engine.
Before You Toss That Old Phone … Be Sure It’s ‘Clean’
Los Angeles Times writer Nancy Lloyd found out (in the nick of time) that “your most unpredictable, time-consuming and financially perilous breakup may be with your old phone number” (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-tn-phone-number-security-20161125-story.html). Your old phone number itself may be the problem. She goes onto further explain:
- Before cutting the cord on my landline, I ported the number to a cellphone. Only then did I discover that, although landlines cannot receive texts and I never signed up for any, a bank and a pharmacy were sending them anyway. Had I given up the landline without first porting it, texts meant for me would have gone to the cellphone of the stranger who got reassigned my former number. And I never would have known.
Beware even the obvious!