Social Media and Your Privacy

“If I see one more ad for the perfect wedding dress, I might scream.”  I sat at my desk, scrolling through my Facebook page while I talked to my best friend on the phone.

She laughed and asked, “Why are you looking at ads for wedding dresses?”

“I’m trying not to!”  I couldn’t help but shake my head myself.  For the past two weeks, it’s been a rarity not to have at least one ad on my Facebook feed for engagement rings, honeymoon destinations or – you guessed it – the perfect wedding dress.  I’m recently divorced.  No intentions of marriage in the foreseeable future.  But Facebook doesn’t know that about me.  All they know is that I started helping my sister plan her a few weeks ago.

It’s no coincidence that the ads you see on your Facebook page are relevant to things you might be interested in.  It’s designed that way.  Social networks push us to share every facet of our lives with family and friends, and they provide us the means to do so, but, by providing that service, those networks see what we share.  In turn they use that information to summarize and predict us. We don’t pay a fee to use these networks, but they aren’t “free” – we pay for them with our personal data.

Sites like Facebook, Google, and many others, gather data about you so that they can gear the advertisements you see to things they know will spark your interest.  It’s a personalized marketing strategy, and while it’s rather intriguing and somewhat brilliant for the advertisers it serves, it’s questionable for those it’s targeting.  You.

Since Facebook is likely the most well known, and widely used, I’ll focus on how they go about this in order to hopefully help you understand how it works across the board, not just for this particular network.  Simply click on the word “privacy” at the bottom of your Facebook page (it has to be your page, not someone else’s) and you are told, “We receive data about you whenever you interact with Facebook, such as when you look at another person’s timeline, send or receive a message, search for a friend or a Page, click on, view or otherwise interact with things.”

They aren’t shy in telling you that, “When you post things like photos or videos on Facebook, we may receive additional related data (or metadata), such as the time, date, and place you took the photo or video.”

That’s right. If you post a photo you took with your cell phone on “your” Facebook page, where you were when you took it, when you uploaded it, and any comments you or anyone else has to offer are recorded and saved.  Facebook also records the websites you visit as well as “the date and time you visit the site.”  It’s called “tracing.”  And they use it to connect “behavioral data” that “partner” companies collect from what seems like everywhere (debit card purchases, motor vehicle records, court files, financial records) to match you to the ads they want to target you for.

Now, Facebook states that they replace this identifying info with numbers before they share your specifics with data-mining marketers, but Facebook clearly still knows who matches up to said numbers.  Hence, the personalized ads that you see on your page.  All you have to do is go online, search for a flight to Ireland, and bam!… an ad for Ireland vacations miraculously appears when you open your Facebook page.  Pay attention and you’ll see this on many other sites as well.

Online advertising has swiftly morphed from mass media insignificance to pop-up irritation to seriously targeted, terrifyingly personal ads in the past decade. This is attributed, in no small part, to two of the biggest personal information banks: Google and Facebook.  The numbers are astounding.  Google generates almost 30 billion ad impressions daily, Facebook – 7 billion.  And you can guess those numbers are only growing.

So how do we maintain some semblance of privacy in the face of a world where privacy is no longer the natural state?  We do so by understanding the risks.  By educating ourselves so that we can make better decisions and choices online.  By realizing that the social networks we use are, bottom line, businesses.  And businesses are geared toward the needs of the owners and the customers.  We are neither and therefore our best interests will only be upheld by us.  To learn how to change your privacy settings on Facebook, click here.  For any other site that you feel might share your information, simply go to your preferred search engine and type in that sites name and “privacy settings.”   Privacy requires a pro-active approach in today’s world.

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