Protecting Your Privacy Online
by Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D.
Facebook has taken a huge hit for it’s use of our personal information. But whether you own Facebook stock or not, the bigger question is how do you protect your online privacy? Mark Zuckerberg fared well with the interrogation from the House and Senate on how he will help protect our privacy. Yet, if he were questioned from an international perspective, he might not do so well. Other countries such as Sweden, Norway and the EU have much stricter privacy laws (https://gdpr-info.eu/art-13-gdpr/). During the Senate hearings over Facebook, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida commented “If you and other social media companies do not get your act in order, none of us are going to have any privacy anymore.”
A bit harsh. And perhaps a bit unfair. Let’s face it. When you sign up for Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and all the others, you are knowingly agreeing to have your information used for advertising, logarithms, studies, and the like. In fact, when you create a new account on such similar social media platforms you see something that reads like this: “by signing up, you agree to our Terms, Data Policy and Cookies Policy.” How many of you have read those terms, data or cookie policies? Most likely, not many of you at all. So, is it fair to gripe about social media sites stealing or using our personal data?
Dating sites do the same thing. They aggregate your data and use it for a variety of things – most especially for advertising. In fact, sites such as Tinder, Match, Senior People, OKCupid and the rest – collect more data on you than many other social media sites. Why? Because you give it to them. Most of social apps like Facebook are “free.” Yet the cost is providing your personal information. Dating sites cost money. So not only are you providing your personal information – age, sex, likes, dislikes (advertisers love this) but you’re also providing your credit card and address information! A bonanza for advertisers. And who can forget the Ashley Madison scandal when 32 million people were exposed for their membership on a site that promotes extramarital affairs.
One thing to remember is that many of these companies sleep together so to speak. For example, Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp (an international texting service). Google owns YouTube and AdSense. If you think you’re opting out of one, you most likely will have your personal information tracked on another. Even those personal assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are tracking your personal information.
How do you protect your privacy online?
You can opt out of all social media, dating applications and use of the ‘internet of things.’ If that’s not an option for you, use the settings on each platform to limit their use of your personal information as much as possible. Who you share things with, who can advertise, turn off third party apps, who sees what and who has access to your information is all within your control on many of the social media apps. There are some private email services available – because if you’re using gmail or yahoo or the few diehards still on aol email service – your information is still collected by those email programs. Yet who wants an email that you have to pay for when you can get it for free? Or an email service such as ProtonMail (free) which encrypts all user information – but no one has ever heard of it before. Seeing something new and different (email servers) often makes others feel uncomfortable.
There are also VPN’s (virtual private networks) that you can use for web browsing. But again, they are not free. VPN’s make it nearly impossible for others to access your activity and information, but it also limits the user experience. For example, when you use Google as a search engine, it recognizes who you are and where you are searching – say for example, restaurants near you. But using a private VPN will not have access to your location so the search would be frustrating and less fruitful.
Or you can consider – that if you’re not doing anything unethical, immoral or illegal what’s the worst thing that these companies can track? Your likes, dislikes, personal shopping habits, etc. – all which make for a better browsing and personal experience on the internet.
So – relax. It’s the 21st century and the big companies are watching. If you have nothing to hide, maybe not worry so much.
Photo credit by Silver Sager, Waldemar Brandt (Schlenswig-Holstein, Germany) @waldemarbrandt67w