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What You Still Don’t Know about the Usage of Your Social Media Data

While the world is starting to crack down on companies’ misuse and abuse of customer data, increasing regulation and awareness have signified not the end to the privacy problem but, on the contrary, only the beginning of strict and thorough digital privacy policy.

Such regulation is an excellent start, but internet privacy nonetheless remains a problem. Companies may conform to the technicalities of privacy law, when it exists, but their behavior won’t be without ambiguous cases, legal loopholes, and blurry lines.

While we are right to find comfort in regulations like GDPR or Congressional efforts to investigate Facebook’s use of customer data, we should continue to remain vigilant as to how our social media data is being collected and used.

Here’s what you might not be thinking about when it comes to the usage of your social media data.

Facebook and the Collection of Non-User Data

With gray areas in regulation and consent, it will be a long time before we can rest assured that our data won’t be used for inappropriate or manipulative, even if not nefarious, purposes.

Many of us are already aware that Facebook collects data beyond what users readily provide–such as age, city of residence, and relationship status. But fewer people know that Facebook’s collection of data extends outside the platform, too.

The tech giant has online tracking software on other sites and apps that allow it to collect data about Facebook users and non-users alike. Facebook Pixel, for example, is invisible code often present on third party websites that allows both that website and Facebook to monitor individual activity and access relevant personal information. Of course, collected data is also shared across all Facebook-affiliated companies, including WhatsApp and Instagram.

This means that even if we don’t use Facebook or Facebook-owned platforms, the company can access our data anyway.

Users should stay on their toes about the latest events and updates in privacy policy, investigate their privacy rights, and double check their Facebook privacy settings to make sure they’re aware of the implications. To prevent Facebook from accessing web browsing data, users should use a VPN; there are some online helpful guides for the use of some of the most effective VPNs, including ExpressVPN and Hotspot Shield.

How Explicit is Explicit Consent?

You might have noticed a spike in the number of website pop-ups notifying you that those sites are collecting your data–and asking you to click “Okay.” That’s because according to GDPR, companies need to obtain consumers’ clear and explicit consent when they collect user data online.

By requiring this consent on its platforms, as well as on websites that use its tracking technology, Facebook is meeting legal standards for EU privacy policy.

But is this kind of consent really explicit? Is it really explicit when consumers aren’t sure whether they can opt out–when, for example, it looks like ‘Okay’-ing the privacy notification is their only option? And to what extent is user consent very clear if they’re given only vague or obscure notions as to the implications of that consent?

These pop-ups do little more than remind us to cringe about the way our data is being used. When consent is so strongly induced, it’s hardly consent at all.

The Dark Side of Face-Tagging

Facebook’s face-tagging technology might seem innocuous (even if a little creepy), but it’s really a collection of biometric data on a person’s facial features.

While people can technically turn off this feature, many users are unaware that they can do so, since Facebook has only recently granted this privilege and keeps this capability relatively hidden within the other privacy settings.

Even more critically, Facebook’s facial recognition technology goes beyond simple face-tagging. Facebook allows users to turn off face-tagging so that they won’t be explicitly identified in photos, but the company is vague about whether it continues to scan your face and store the data for its own purposes. Privacy watchdogs worry that this collection of identifying data not only makes it hard for users to remain anonymous online, but that it also threatens civil liberties by jeopardizing their anonymity in public.

While Facebook has agreed to delete identifying information, it’s unclear whether the company will have the same privacy standards for American users as they do for European ones.

Political Data: The Blurry Line Between Customization and Manipulation

Facebook is often criticized for its disproportionate role in politics–not just because of the notorious Cambridge Analytica scandal but, more broadly, because of its hyper-targeting of political materials to individual users.

In displaying heavily partisan ads, news articles, products, and more, Facebook’s use of consumer data not only appeals to, but also may influence and help solidify, a person’s political ideology.

Congressional scrutiny of Zuckerberg has made the company more cautious about displaying propaganda and fake news. But Facebook continues to push its limits by collecting political data and displaying targeted materials–keeping the distinction between bad journalism and fake news ambiguous.

Medical and Highly Personal Ad-Targeting

Data collection reaches beyond both the biometric and the political. Inappropriate data collection and ad-targeting could easily expose other personal information such as mental or physical health issues, pregnancy concerns, sexual orientation, and more.

In 2016, Facebook came under fire for ‘spying’ on the online searches of cancer patients. Several patients found that Facebook sent them targeted ads based on their browsing the web for potential treatment solutions. When cancer patient Winston Smith brought these concerns to court, the court decided that such ad-targeting was okay because he had consented to Facebook’s privacy policy. On this view, medical data collection is essentially the same as data collection based on any other consumer interest.

The court case set a dangerous precedent: that it’s perfectly fine to gather data about a consumer’s medical or other deeply personal needs, and then target or even expose them based on this data. A person’s online medical research, in other words, is not protected; it’s just as vulnerable to collection and targeting as any other web browsing data.

Conclusion

Though nearly all of us use some form of social media, few are aware of the full extent to which our data is collected and used. Our online data can take the form of political information, medical and biometric details, and other highly personal information, gathered not only from Facebook itself but also from our activity across the web.

While the solution to the privacy problem ultimately needs to come from the policy end, users should nonetheless take precautions to protect their data.

About the Author

Shachar Shamir is COO of Ranky, a marketing company based in Tel Aviv. As Ranky’s COO, Shachar helps startups around the world with their marketing and online growth needs. So far, he has helped more than 200 startups with hands-on solutions. Other than that, he offers startups consulting and mentoring solutions, on how to increment their presence online and gain more clients.

 

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