Social Networking vs. Data Privacy: A Delicate Balance


Finding the balance between social networking and data privacy has taken center stage lately with news of the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation of Facebook and its relationship with Cambridge Analytica.

At the heart of the investigation is Cambridge Analytica’s acquisition of data from the Facebook accounts of millions of users. This information was obtained through an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” created by a professor at Cambridge University. The app employed Facebook Login, a tool that allows users to simply login to a website or app using their Facebook account instead of creating new credentials for the website. The downside that many people don’t realize is that, when they use Facebook Login, they grant the website or app’s developer access to a range of information from their Facebook profiles, including their friends lists.

In the case of thisisyourdigitallife, approximately 270,000 people used Facebook Login to create accounts and thus unknowingly opted in to share their personal data. This resulted in the data of millions of people being acquired and then shared with Cambridge Analytica via these users’ friends lists. Initially the number of accounts affected was estimated to be 50 million, but that has now been revised upward to 87 million.

The incident has raised a lot of questions about how apps collect and share data, and what steps you can take to protect your online privacy. Of course, the only way to totally protect your privacy is to have never set up an account on a social networking site, shopped online, or searched the internet from your own computer or email account. For many that ship has already sailed. But, anything you can do now to control when, where and how much of your information is shared moving forward is still worth considering.

Here are some things you can do to better protect your privacy on social networking sites.

Reduce the Number of Apps Installed

Your privacy on Facebook and other social networking sites is impacted not only by what data the site itself collects about your activity, but also what information third party apps that connect to your account collect and share. Every app you have is one more opportunity for others to collect information about you. So, only install apps you really need. Minimize the amount of information those installed apps collect. Finally, delete an app when you no longer need it or trust it.

Control When You Share

Don’t use Facebook or Google Login. While convenient, login sharing opens the door to unintentional data sharing from your Facebook or Google account. Protect your privacy by using a unique login for each and every account you have. Also, turn off Apps, Websites and Games sharing of Facebook. NOTE: This will also prevent you from sharing content, such as news articles, from other websites to Facebook using that website’s share features, but you can always copy and paste the URL into your post if you really want to share it to Facebook.

Think Twice, Post Once

Think twice before posting or sharing a post from another site. Remember that nothing is totally private once it’s written down. Yes, Facebook does have options that allow you to control the privacy of your posts on your wall, but just because you can restrict who can see a post, it still exists in cyberspace and can be found by someone with the skills to search for it – like a hacker or a company engaged in data mining.

Also, stay away from the games, quizzes and the fun surveys. These are often created to harvest your information, either for financial gain, or for hacking purposes. Consider the surveys that ask you for information like the initials of your name, your hometown, first car, elementary school, etc. These are typical passwords people use, as well as password hint questions.

And, don’t fall for “farming schemes”. These are posts by companies designed to generate likes and shares and prove to potential clients they can generate online activity. In addition to giving away your data by responding, many of these posts use pictures of sick, injured and/or disabled people without their permission. You can usually identify farming scheme posts by the requests that people “Please share”, “Like if you agree”, “Type Amen if You Agree”, etc.

Deactivate or Delete Your Accounts

Finally, you can deactivate or delete your social networking accounts. However, with social and business networking often intertwined and overlapping, this may not be the best decision for you. Besides, this doesn’t address the data being collected on search engines like Google.

For most people, the use of social networking sites like Facebook is a double-edged sword. If and how actively to use them is an individual decision. And while a lot of attention is being paid to privacy threats on these sites, you probably have greater control over how social networking sites manage your personal information than you do with search engines. Now, doesn’t that give you pause?