Your Digital Shadow is Lurking Right Behind You (and in Databases around the World)

The forces working against the protection of our personal data are strong these days. Just now, I had to lookup my WordPress password because my account had been compromised recently, and I had forgottem my new password. A few minutes ago, I was using a newly-issued credit card because someone charged a vacation on my old card. (I caught it within a day or two and I hope they weren’t able to enjoy that stolen trip.) Every day I get a spam email about someone making a purchase using my Apple ID. And everyone is talking about Cambridge Analytica and how the company acquired data collected from a Facebook quiz set up by another party and used it to create psychological profiles of millions of users and then microtarget political ads to them during the 2016 presidential campaign. Aleksandr Kogan who created the quiz and Cambridge Analytica have been banned from using Facebook because providing this data to Cambridge Analytica was a violation of Facebook’s terms of service.

You may recall that I was caught up in a local news story that went international where it appeared that I was suggesting that Facebook is listening to you. Countless people reached out to me with their own strange stories about how they have no other explanation for an ad they saw on Facebook other than that Facebook must be listening through the phone’s microphone. In my opinion, Facebook is so sophisticated and our knowledge of how the company acquires data is so unsophisticated, that it might appear that Facebook is listening. But I still contend that they are not. It’s just too much data to collect and analyze. I’ve also had some people who are experts reach out to me and they also believe that Facebook is not listening.

We still have a lot to learn about how our data are being used and how we should protect ourselves. Many of us have been online for two decades now and have unleashed a vast amount of data as we engage online through various social media platforms and apps, browse the web, sign up for contests/email lists, and take online quizzes. We have all created a digital shadow of ourselves that is particularly valuable.

Many social media and technology consumers have little understanding about how to protect themselves and other just don’t really care. Many young adults are “digital natives” and have been using technology since they were very young and don’t have the same concerns as older users who adopted these platforms as adults. For example, a friend of mine had concerns in the early days of email about setting up an email address using her actual name!

Even before the Internet, companies were collecting data on consumers, such as  credit card purchases, information from public records such as addresses or cars registered, and magazine or newspaper subscriptions. But what the Internet and especially social media changed is the volume of information we are providing every second, for many seconds a day. The websites we visit, the online purchases we make, and the social media interactions we have are creating a profile of who we are, and that’s very valuable to companies for a variety of purposes.

Today, data privacy is something that we should all care about. We are seeing ads by Russian propagandists who are threatening our democracy, content in News Feeds that uses a sophisticated algorithm to keep us scrolling and checked out of real life, and ads for products they think we need, possibly convincing us that we actually do need those products. Research has exposed that certain users were shown pricier rooms on Orbitz or that shoppers on sites like Home Depot and Staples were charged more for certain items because data indicated they would be willing to pay more. Data we have willingly released could be used to make decisions about whether we should be hired for a job, what rates we should pay for health insurance, and what fees and interest rates we should be charged for loans. We have already seen how ProPublica was able to buy an ad on Facebook for a housing-related event that excluded people with “affinities” for a range of ethnic and racial minorities. Facebook now doesn’t allow racial and ethnic filters for ads related to housing, employment, or credit services.  We don’t know what the future holds. Facebook could be hacked by a foreign government or terrorist organization. Could there be a black market for Facebook data? Facebook could also think of new ways to use our data.

Here are a few suggested tips to protect yourself:

  • Look under your Facebook settings and then go to apps. All these apps have been provided your gender, networks, username, full name, profile photo, friends list, and other information you post on the site. Either delete these apps or edit the information they can access. This doesn’t delete the information they already have collected about you, but the apps will not be able to collect additional information.
  • If you want to delete the data the app has collected about you, you will need to  contact the developer to get your data removed. Go to the app’s website and search for a form.
  • While you are looking at your Facebook settings, it’s not a bad idea to also look under ads (listed right below apps) and make some decisions here. You delete or not allow advertisers to target ads based on your information, but that doesn’t mean Facebook isn’t still collecting this information about you.
  • Also on the settings page, you can tweak your privacy settings. Check out what’s there and make appropriate adjustments. Also under Timeline and Tagging, you can adjust who can see what you post. If you want to be able to review a post you are tagged in, you can set that here. You should also look at Facial Recognition and decide whether you do or don’t want to have Facebook recognizing you in photos posted by other people.
  • Go to your settings on your phone too and look under privacy. You can see what apps are using location services, have access to your photos, and can use your microphone.
  • Create unique logins and passwords for sites you access instead of logging in through your Facebook account.
  • Don’t do those tempting quizzes or allow apps to access your profile photo (so you can see what you look like as the opposite gender). It’s allowing too much access to your content for very little in return.
  • If you actually read the terms of service, look for the data the phone apps are collecting. If you don’t think it’s appropriate for an app to have access to certain information (like contacts or photos), you might not want to download it. Also, look at whether the company promises strong encryption of storage and transmission of personal data. You don’t want your private information leaked.
  • Make smarter choices about the apps you use. Firefox Focus is a privacy-focused browser.  DuckDuckGo and Disconnect are other browsers that allow for private browsing of the web. Signal is a secure messaging app you might want to check out.
  • On your computer, you can also use more secure web browsing. You can either use the private browsing mode of a popular browser like Firefox or Chrome or download a private browser like Tor or Epic.

This article from Wired also has some great tips and more detailed explanations of some of the points I listed above.

Remember that Facebook and other social media platforms do not exist to connect people to one another, but to collect your data and use it to serve you ads or provide it to third parties. We get free access to a platform to share our lives and connect with friends all over the world, but we are basically selling our soul to Facebook in exchange.

In the future, we might see more transparency from companies as legislation moves in this direction. Whether by law or a consumer uprising, social media, other internet companies, and online data brokers might be forced to provide more information about the data they collect and how they use it.  Consumers might then be able to correct information (such as a health condition you don’t have, but they think you do because you googled it once) or block information you don’t want shared or sold.

In the end, it’s really challenging to not only keep up with social media (aren’t you already spending a lot of time scrolling through News Feeds?), but also manage our digital shadow. But getting more educated as a digital consumer will likely become extremely important and critical in upcoming years.

To learn more about managing your digital footprint, the Internet Society has developed nine online tutorials.

I also found this article about smartphone data tracking to be interesting and enlightening.

Finally, check out the Human Rights, Big Data, and Technology Project for academic studies on this topic.

Good luck!