As we’ve all have probably heard, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are under fire for allowing user data to be collected and used in ways it shouldn’t have been, namely to track and target user’s political opinions without their knowledge. For its part, Facebook has called the incident “a breach of trust” and says it has already put tighter restrictions in place to stop this from ever happening again. Wherever the blame lies, plenty of us are now reassessing the deal we make when we sign up for services like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
In this digital age, exactly how safe is our personal data? And how is it being used? If you’re wondering what kinds of information you’re giving away to the apps you use – and how you can limit it – here’s what you need to know:
- What data do apps hold on me?
The short answer is, an awful lot. Signing up for any free service, such as Facebook and Gmail, means that you’re basically signing away part of your privacy in order to use the service. The only way to get an understanding of what sort of information you are ‘giving away’ is to read the terms and conditions statement when you create an account. Yes, people actually read those – albeit, just a few handful, we’ll admit. But even then, most private policies use vague terms that often confuse or bore users from attempting to try and tackle the whole statement. But what most don’t know is that they are deliberately written in this manner.
What it really boils down to is how far you trust the companies you’ve signed up with. Targeted advertising is the most noticeable way your user activity is going to be turned back against you – that’s why you see ads on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Google based on stuff you’ve already looked at or expressed an interest in. Independent data brokers will often collect up multiple parcels of activity, inside apps and on the web, to build up a pretty comprehensive picture of who you are and what you like.
You may or may not think that relevant adverts are a reasonable price to pay for everything you get from these apps for free – for a long time it’s a deal we’ve all signed up to and accepted. Do you mind if Facebook logs every interaction you make on the site if it means you get a more interesting News Feed, with your favorite people at the top, and products you might actually like down the side?
Then there are the third-party apps you connect up to your Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other accounts, like the personality quiz that apparently harvested so much data for Cambridge Analytica. Again, these apps that connect to your social media accounts will have a data policy and a trade-off between functionality and privacy – either accept the terms, or don’t run the app.
Broadly speaking, apps and sites want to track everything you do that can help them learn more about you and throw up better targeted advertising – where you go, what you search for, what you’re interested in. The most comprehensive fix is to not make use of these apps at all, though that is a challenge in today’s ultra-connected world. If you want to stay connected but keep data collection down to a minimum, we’ll talk about that below.
- How can I limit the data I share?
Every app you install on your phone asks for permissions. On Android, open up Settings then tap Apps & notifications and choose an app – if you then tap Permissions you can see what the app has access to on your phone. On iOS you need to open Settings, then scroll down and tap an app to see what it has access to, check individual app settings as well, spending more time logged out of sites such as Facebook and Twitter is one easy way of restricting the amount of data that can be collected about you.
Keeping the third-party apps that are connected to your social media accounts down to a minimum is a quick and easy way of limiting where your data can go. At least then you’ve only got to worry what Twitter and Facebook are doing with your data, rather than dozens of other companies.
Check within each app’s settings too: For example, if you tap Settings and privacy on the Twitter app menu, then Privacy and safety, then Personalization and data, you can limit some of the data that’s collected – including location data and the other apps on your phone. These steps can limit tracking and data sharing to some extent, but if you really don’t want your mobile habits being tracked by an app, uninstall it.
More data is collected on the web, and spending more time logged out of sites such as Facebook and Twitter is one easy way of restricting the amount of data that can be collected as you browse – your browser’s incognito or private mode can come in handy here – but of course, once you do sign in and start clicking around on Facebook and Twitter, it’s part of the deal you’ve made that these sites can log that information, and in some cases share it with others.
While these steps do help in limiting certain tracking behaviors, in the end you’re agreeing to have Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others track what you do inside their apps, and at the very least sell ads against that activity, in return for using them – it’s perhaps time to think about using them less, or at least being more careful about what you do inside these apps and what you share.