Do those who live in glass houses really care about their privacy?
We live in an age of increasing connectivity and constant online socializing. We also live in an era where there are more threats to our data privacy than ever before. To wit, a report from Axios Media revealed that “A majority of Americans (64%) say they have personally experienced a major data breach.”
Fundamentally, social media presents an unintentional irony for those of us who are privacy-minded. Compulsive social posting – sharing every biographical detail, copious photos of family, friends and activities, events attended, binge-worthy entertainment favs or hot takes on political trends – it’s a glass-house form of exhibitionism that seems the exact opposite of confidentiality.
Yet, while we share some blame for broadcasting our public lives to the world, it doesn’t necessarily follow that social media users deserve to have private data breached. Facebook, like many other companies, has sometimes violated the public’s trust over privacy and data use.
As consumers of social media, we must learn to be responsible with our data, and learn how to protect ourselves with the strongest security settings, software solutions and best practices for privacy.
Why Privacy Matters
Let’s examine why educating yourself about privacy and online security matters so much. If, for instance, consumers lack a solid understanding of Facebook’s privacy settings, they expose themselves to potential identity theft, spoofing, phishing or other kinds of malicious cyber-attacks.
Like it or not, modern technology has come to define our lives, and more so in the lives of future generations who spend countless hours on social media. Elon Musk has even said that our mobile devices are so reciprocal with our daily lives that we’ve effectively become cyborgs.
The double-edged truth about technology is that with innovation comes new risks. Hackers today are progressively sophisticated, which means consumers need to be more sophisticated about the security measures they use online, including with social media.
Most people today have a deeply-connected symbiotic (perhaps addictive) relationship with the Internet via wireless technology and other devices.
According to a recent cyber-data white paper, “The data-driven world will be always on, always tracking, always monitoring, always listening and always watching – because it will be always learning.”
Our Data is Our Property
An important new dimension of privacy is the handling of our data. Many argue that we should embrace the concept that we are the rightful owners of our data.
The advocates at Humanity.co and other organizations have spread the argument that data is like property– it can be owned, it has value, and it must be protected from theft and malicious use.
Similarly, a columnist for The Economist agreed that we should own our data, and should be able to count on a company’s privacy settings to actually keep certain content confidential. “Personal data needs to be regarded as a human right . . . the data itself should be treated like property – and people should be fairly compensated for it.”
After all, is it fair that we have to be bombarded with ads if we aren’t getting a cut of the revenue for our data?
Misuse of Our Data Threatens Our Security
Privacy isn’t just about keeping secrets and leading a confidential, quiet life. It’s about making sure our identities, our finances and our intellectual property do no become jeopardized by cybersecurity breaches and data harvesting from advertisers, social media moguls and hackers.
- A 2017 report found 638 million ransomware attacks affected small businesses.
- 9.32 billion total malware attacks took place in 2017.
- Over 4 billion records were stolen in 2017.
- Nearly 17 million people were victims of identity fraud last year. This includes online shopping email and social media fraud, and other identity theft.
Facebook Is Used by HR and Job Recruiters
A word of caution to job-seekers – always be careful what you post to social media before, during and after landing an important job. Those risqué spring break photos or selfies at the local bar have a way of haunting you when pursuing a new career.
According to Glassdoor.com, “Roughly 80 percent of recruiters and hiring managers use social media to look for and vet job candidates. Employment experts advise jobseekers to make sure their social media pages, whether Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, mesh with what is said on application materials.”
A Brief History of Facebook
For those of you who haven’t see The Social Network (Hollywood’s’ retelling of the Facebook story), here’s a quick refresher.
Before Facebook, a little over 15 years ago, there was a prototypical predecessor called “Facemash,” an early Harvard-focused dating site idea by Zuckerberg and partners who’d later be ousted from the future company called “The Facebook.” Facemash used stolen school ID photos to populate its site’s profiles, and opened on October 28, 2003.
It closed a few days later, after it was shut down by Harvard execs. In the aftermath, Zuckerberg faced serious charges of breach of security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy. Though he faced expulsion from Harvard University for his actions, all charges were eventually dropped.
Chalk it up to being a young college student, perhaps, but in this case his willingness to hack personal information predicted what government agencies, tech and privacy advocates would call his future ethical lapses. Past was indeed prologue, and there would be many more privacy violations before the young billionaire turned 30 years old.
In 2004, Napster founder and angel investor Sean Parker became the company’s president, with Zuckerberg serving as chairman and CEO. The company changed the site’s name from Facemash to TheFacebook to just Facebook, after purchasing the domain name facebook.com for $200,000.
By 2009, it had become the world’s most popular social networking site.
Gradually rolling our new features like the timeline, newsfeed, instant messaging and live video broadcasting, Facebook gained a following of hundreds of millions of users worldwide.
Fast forward to 2019 and Facebook remains one of the largest and successful companies in Silicon Valley. And with that power has come a great deal of responsibility and temptation toward questionable business ethics.
It’s not to say Facebook and other media platforms are the brainchild of supervillains. Zuckerberg has given generously to charity, and has arguably contributed a great deal to the social good (more on that below). But his 1-percenter wealth suggest he is a super-capitalist, and when’s all is said and done, the world of business is a cutthroat enterprise.
New technology is difficult to predict and to regulate. Again, we as consumers share some of the blame. We know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and we know websites and email providers were using cookies and scanning our messages for keywords, years before Facebook ever got in trouble for doing the same.
The simple truth is that targeted advertising is how these companies pay for the enormous bandwidth used by millions of users. Facebook has real employees with real salaries, in brick-and-mortar buildings – so naturally that funding had to come from selling user data.
According to Investopedia, Facebook’s $40 billion in profits last year came “Primarily from targeted advertising and user data.” In other words, our personal data is both the lifeblood and the cash cow to social media platforms like Facebook.
This guide isn’t an argument for or against keeping your Facebook page.
The decision of whether to keep your account is up to you, as the consumer. The purpose of this overview is to offer perspective to help you make the most informed decision possible. We’ll share some helpful and actionable tutorials to adjust your privacy settings – assuming you intend to keep your Facebook for the foreseeable future.
Government Intervention, Data Breaches and Security Concerns
In a recent article at Wired.com, Facebook is depicted as having a rough road ahead of it. “Regulation and even antitrust investigations are looming,” the article describes.
To illustrate their concern, below are a few examples of privacy and security breaches that Facebook has contended with in recent years:
- Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling company, represents perhaps the most famous example of cybersecurity scandals. On March 17, 2018, The New York Times reported the data breach of over 50 million Facebook users. The firm harvested private information from Facebook users, without their permission.
- The Washington Post recently reported that “The Federal Trade Commission and Facebook are negotiating over a multi-billion dollar fine that would settle the agency’s investigation into the social media giant’s privacy practices.”
- PCMag.com reported that “Facebook gave more than 150 companies – including Microsoft, Amazon, and Spotify – special privileges to its users’ [private] data.”
What Type of Data Facebook Collects and How They Use It
When using a social media platform, you should read their terms and policies to make sure you can live with them.
Facebook’s Privacy Explanation breaks down the types of data they collect and how they use it.
Here are a few highlights:
- Information and content you post
- Networks and groups you belong to
- Purchasing data (if you make transactions through Facebook)
- Content and info that other users share about you
- Information about the computer/device you use
How it’s used:
- Facebook product and features research
- Facial recognition for photos
- Marketing and advertising
- Sharing with researchers and academics
- Sharing with law enforcement
Keeping Kids Safe on Social Media
Much of the time, privacy concerns are focused on the adult community. Yet, we all have children in our lives, whether our own relatives, students, neighbors, etc. It is perhaps more important to learn about cybersecurity when it comes to social media because of the larger role cyberbullying plays in the lives of children.
Today’s typical youth spends 9 hours in front of a screen. While children don’t spend as much time on Facebook as they do on Instagram, it’s important to remember Facebook OWNS Instagram.
Keep these tips in mind for kids using social media:
- Monitor the sites kids visit
- Require them to “friend” you on all social media accounts
- Talk to your kids about cyberbullying and how to avoid it
- Teach your child not to give out any personal information over social media that might reveal your family’s location, financial information, or other private data.
Privacy and Security Settings You Should Use
There are some privacy settings you may have picked up over the years, but we’ll break down the settings for you, and will include some lesser-known tips you probably haven’t read about.
Privacy shortcuts gives you quick access to the most common privacy settings.
1. Click the question mark (?) icon at the top of the page.
2. Click Privacy Shortcuts
3. Adjust any desired references under three umbrella categories:
- Who can see my stuff?
- Who can contact me?
- How do I stop someone from bothering me?
Apps and “The Platform”
One lesser-known privacy concern was uncovered by Bloomberg Technology. When you use Facebook to log into other websites and apps, Facebook can track what you do there.
Did you know when your friends use their Facebook apps to log in to third-party apps, Facebook can also access information in YOUR Facebook profile as well?
There is a built-in “kill switch” in your settings to turn off what is known as “Platform.”
“Platform” (sometimes shown as “Apps, Websites and Games”) is the way that apps — and potential hackers — are able to collect and use the personal data you put on Facebook. If you turn Platform off, you will keep most of your personal data from being harvested.
Take advantage of these settings to take back control of your privacy:
- Click the drowpdown menu in the top-right corner of Facebook and select Settings.
- Click Apps and Websites in the left side menu.
- Scroll down to the Apps, Websites and Games section and click Edit.
- Click Turn Off.
1. From the Security and Login page, you can choose friends to contact in case you get locked out, or you can change your password, turn on two-factor authentication or even add encryption to emails sent by Facebook.
Just scroll down to any section and click Edit to make adjustments.
2. Another important configuration is setting up alerts for unrecognized logins.
From the Setting Up Extra Security page, you can ask to be notified about logins to your page or to messenger.
Most assume facial recognition is Facebook’s way of identifying people to help you tag photos. However, Consumer Reports revealed that just a few years ago, Facebook filed a patent for facial recognition technology that would allow the company to identify people as they shop in retail outlets. Another patent revealed how the data could be used to gauge your emotions as you browse online (using your device’s camera).
How to Disable Facial Recognition on Facebook
- Click Settings from the drop-down menu.
- Click Privacy.
- Click Timeline and Tagging.
- Within Timeline and Tagging dialog box, scroll down to “Who sees tag suggestions of you when photos that look like you are uploaded?”
- Select No One in the drop-down menu.
Your screen should look like this:
Blocking is a powerful to weed out content and people you don’t want to deal with, and eliminate contact with potential data scammers.
Click here to access the block settings: https://www.facebook.com/settings?tab=blocking
You’ll see options to block everything from individuals to groups to apps and invites.
Simply type into the textbox whichever person or event page or app you want to block and hit block or enter. The blocked individuals will appear below the text box, with the option to unblock at any time.
General Facebook Privacy Tips
- As a rule of thumb, avoid posting your location – especially if away from home for extended periods.
- Don’t tag people in photos without their permission.
- Don’t reveal any contact information you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.
- Don’t repost links to websites if you don’t know they are secure.
- Stop accepting friend requests from unknown people.
- Never share your login and password with friends.
- Keep your browser updated to ensure the latest security controls.
- Remember to log out of your account on shared devices.
Social Reactions to Data Breaches and #DeleteFacebook Advocates
To read direct user experiences and complaints that led them to delete their Facebook accounts, you can follow the #DeleteFacebook Twitter thread.
Research reported on Tech Radar suggest that over 20 million users deleted Facebook because of outrage over privacy breaches.
How to Delete Your Facebook Account
Keep in mind, deleting your account is permanent.
Click here to see three options associated with deleting your account:
- You can permanently delete your account.
- You’ll also see an option to deactivate your account, which is reversible, and allows you to keep using Messenger.
- You can also click the button to download your data before deleting your account.
Should you continue using Facebook?
Ultimately, you have to decide whether you agree with Facebooks past and present privacy policies, and decide from there how much content you want to share with them and through them – if any at all.
According to a survey conducted by Consumer Affairs, “In a nationally representative survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, 7 in 10 Facebook account holders told Consumer Reports they altered their behavior in some way due to privacy concerns raised by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.” https://www.consumerreports.org/privacy/facebook-privacy-settings/
Alternatives to Facebook
If you are worried about Facebook’s commitment to privacy or simply can’t be bothered to customize all these settings, no one would blame you. Luckily, there are other social media platforms to choose from (some of which have similar privacy problems, but others seem to be better).
One alternative that purports to be privacy-focused is Telegram.
Telegram gained three million new users during a recent Facebook outage, and is poised to attract even more as users become increasingly sensitive and aware of privacy concerns.
Whichever alternative social media platform you opt for, you should carefully read their privacy and data policies. (Remember, Facebook owns Instagram, Whatsapp and a few other social messaging platforms).
Of course, switching to a lesser-known platform makes it harder to network with friends who don’t want to create yet another social media profile page. But, it’s worth looking into for close friends and family.
Software Settings and Solutions for Privacy
There is another risk to our privacy known as history stealing (also known as browser fingerprinting). According to The Electronic Frontier Foundation, it allows a website you visit to discover your past browsing history.
Hackers can combine this data with social network data to identify you and further exploit your privacy. There’s a simple solution to avoid this – mask your IP address with a VPN client.
Use a VPN to Surf Social Media
A VPN is a Virtual Private Network for accessing online content privately and securely. Using a VPN for social media will mask your IP address, prevent history stealing, and make it nearly impossible for your personal data to be hacked.
Optimize Cookie Settings
A cookie is a digital packet that can track and remember bits of information for us. They also work for third-party companies that want to track our browsing habits. You can easily disable cookies in any browser by blocking all cookies or just blocking third-party cookies.
Use a Secure Messaging Apps
Encrypted messaging apps can be a good alternative if you don’t implicitly trust platforms like Facebook messenger. You can learn more about options like Silent Phone or Telegram Messenger at Tom’s Guide.
Positive Developments Toward a Safer Facebook
It’s important to give credit where it’s due, and Facebook has evolved recently to embrace greater consumer privacy rights.
Facebook’s privacy efforts have significantly improved since the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal in 2018.
According to Axios, Facebook is ending its relationship third-party marketers. The report states that “Facebook is shutting down a tool called “Partner Categories,” which allowed marketers to access third-party data to target advertising.”
CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently laid out public plans to improve messaging privacy.
Zuckerberg’s Privacy-focused Post – What it Says and What it Means
On March 6, 2019, Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook with a 3,000-word post on his own verified profile page. Perhaps taking a cue from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who has been making the rounds on high-profile podcasts to discuss his company policies, Zuckerberg has laid out some reflections about Facebook.
He discusses past mistakes, admitting that, “Frankly [Facebook] doesn’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services. But we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve . . ..”
Zuckerberg lays out a vision of proposed new integrations for Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger so people can communicate privately – across all their networks. He discusses other privacy settings that he says will make our Facebook experience more like a “living room” and less like “the town square.” In other words, the forthcoming changes should make our private messages something closer to, well, “private.”
When will all these changes start to happen? “Over the next year and beyond,” he says in the post.
Facebook detractors cite recent examples of the company pledging to offer a “clear history” feature, which, according to Digital Trends, has yet to come to fruition. While skeptics aren’t sure what to make of his promises, it’s worth discussing what implications they would have on the company.
Below are some key takeaways from his post, which include mea culpas, along with plans and promises for significant changes:
- “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally.”
- “People are more cautious of having a permanent record of what they’ve shared.”
- “The future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure.”
- “Finding the right ways to protect both privacy and safety is something societies have historically grappled with.”
- The new privacy-focused platform will prioritize the following: encryptions, private interactions, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability between apps, and secure data storage.
The landscape of social media is not unlike the Wild West. It is, after all, still a world of new media, with constantly-evolving innovations and unpredictable potential application for the future of communication, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity.
It makes sense that consumer protection, control and transparency for innovative ideas within tech always lag behind the break-neck speed of the evolution and growth of said tech.
Considering Moore’s Law, and its implications on the rate of advancement, it’s simply too difficult to be able to properly manage it to be safe and secure for all its users. In other words, regulators are usually forced to be reactive instead of proactive.
Motivated by government interventions and whistleblowing exposes, Facebook is finally moving toward a more secure and privacy-minded future. At the end of the day, your data is your own, which means you have to do your research and be sure you’re not gifting your privacy to the highest bidder, even if it’s not in the fine print.
Armed with the knowledge we’ve shared, we hope you feel empowered to decide whether you want to continue living publicly in your glass house, or instead hang a few digital curtains to protect your identity, your security and your privacy.
Learn More About Online Privacy
- The Congressional Hearing on Privacy & Technology on March 1, 2016: Records & Testimonies
- Complete Guide to Facebook Privacy
- How to Disable Cookies in All Browsers
- Secure Passwords 101: Why They Matter + How To Create Them