The Unknown at Our Fingertips


pointing to question mark

Are you a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or other social media user? Do you Google for information?  Does Alexa quietly listen to everything you say, answer your questions and follow your commands like an eerily intelligent robot in your house? Or is she really just a spy who only helps you to keep you talking? I guess you heard she recently sent one couple’s private conversation to an unintended third party. OOPS!

How often do you read the Terms and Conditions of Use of the web service providers you use? Have you ever read the Privacy Policies? They can be boring and hard to understand.  I guess we all have clicked “I agree” without pausing to wonder “to what exactly.”

Terms and Conditions are contracts. We get to use the company’s software and content and in exchange we give the company access to all of the personal information we expose.  They keep track of everything; the posts we write and read, the pictures we post, the things we “like” and “share.”  Maybe you just read and look, never liking or sharing or posting anything; surely they know little about you. Wrong. They monitor what you look at and how long you spend looking and reading  content on their sites so they know what and who you are interested in and then they follow you and keep records as you journey around the internet.

Website Terms and Conditions can be difficult to understand.  Part of the reason is the way they are written.  Facebook states “we will never sell your information to anyone.” I think this is misleading. While they may not “sell” our information in the strict definition of the word, they do contract with others, advertisers especially, to provide access to our data in exchange for money. They call this “sharing.” They use vague terms in their Privacy Policies to tell us how they share our information.  The Privacy Policy is also part of the contract.

When we log on, search and select from the universe of websites and service providers we find, we have no simple way to keep track of what information we are giving to them. Generally we know it is information involving our use of their services but through the “cookies” they embed into our devices’ software, they also track the other websites we visit to learn more about us. By “sharing” the data they collect from us these companies make billions.

Recently companies have been sending out revised data and privacy policies  which they claim are more clearly written. This is due partly to the bad publicity of recent security breaches and partly due to a new privacy law in Europe known as the General Data Protection Regulation. As U.S. citizens that law does not protect us but some companies, like Facebook, changed their policy language universally. In Europe a person who wants to use social media or other websites’ services must “opt in” or agree that the user’s data can be shared. In the USA, the default choice offered by most companies if we want view their content, is agree to their terms or get off the website.  Lately, I have refused to agree and just left the website. It felt empowering.

Facebook’s new data policy is somewhat clearer but I am finding it challenging to find all of the information they have about me and how I can control it.  When I learned about the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica data breach which allowed a researcher for a political advisory firm to access Facebook’s user data well beyond what Facebook had authorized, I became quite alarmed and curious. Facebook violated its contract with us when it allowed this to happen. I naively thought a sophisticated company like Facebook would have the proper controls in place to “share” only the intended data and honor its contract with us. Sadly, we’ve learned time and time again that our information can be hacked, shared and used by seemingly unlimited, unknown others in ways that can be harmful to us.

Over the years I have liked and shared some political commentary posts. When I reviewed the profile information Facebook had compiled on me I found Facebook’s categorization of my political interests.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised but seeing myself categorized in a political box on Facebook was startling.  I promptly withdrew my permission for Facebook to use or share this portion of my profile. To Facebook’s credit they do allow us to restrict approval for it to share portions of our profiles. How long it will stay restricted is unclear. Facebook does not tell us that.

I wonder what would happen if all of us simply said we are going to stop giving you our information until we get a better deal; like more privacy or more features. Maybe there should be a universal day of removing all of our faces from Facebook. How about a day of silent birdies; just people actually talking to each other? What a message that would send.  Oh well, back to reality.

Often I have to bribe myself with a sweet reward after daunting hours of reading and analyzing these contracts. So, while I do that here is my challenge to my readers. If you have a social media profile, take an hour or so and explore to find out as much as you can about your profile. Then go eat a cookie as your reward. I prefer those to the ones that stalk me around the internet.