Andrew Selepak, PhD, director of the master of arts in mass communication program with a specialization in social media at University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, Gainesville. Jou.UFL.edu
When news broke that the political data firm Cambridge Analytica harvested personal data from nearly 90 million Facebook users, many people rushed to abandon Facebook.
But before you delete your Facebook account, make sure you’re not jumping into a swimming pool to get out of the rain. Bottom Line Personal spoke to Andrew Selepak, PhD, director of the social-media master’s program at University of Florida, to learn how to reduce the amount of personal data that Facebook and other services can get their digital mitts on.
Look before you leap. Facebook, Google and all the other wonderful “free” services that we use every day are not free. Your personal information is how you “pay” to use these platforms—it says so in the multipage, tiny-font user agreement that we all agree to without reading. In the wake of Cambridge Analytica, significant numbers of Facebook users are considering moving their photos, videos, conversations and political rants to alternative sites such as Google+, Instagram and WhatsApp. Although that’s understandable, it’s important to understand that Facebook’s practices aren’t unique.
Instagram is owned by Facebook. So is WhatsApp. Google, which pioneered the data-harvesting business model when Mark Zuckerberg was still in grammar school, is the world’s biggest search engine. Close behind is YouTube, which is owned by Google. Your Internet service provider monitors your browsing…your browser monitors the websites you visit…and the websites you visit monitor how long you stay and what you do while you’re there.
Focus on search as much as social. If you’re currently using Google to find a new social-media platform, you’re already surrendering data in a quest to stop surrendering data. Consider a switch to DuckDuckGo.com. Although this Google-alternative search engine has a silly name, its mission is serious. DuckDuckGo does not collect or share any personal information. Unlike Facebook alternatives—which can’t compete with Facebook’s functionality, familiarity, user base or reach—you can ditch Google today in favor of DuckDuckGo without suffering through any learning curve or diminished user experience. DuckDuckGo will serve up ads based on your search terms, but it doesn’t sell any personal information.
Switch to a private e-mail service. Nearly every free e-mail program collects keyword data and shares that with third parties. Consider using FastMail. FastMail lets you migrate your Gmail or Yahoo account—and most other popular e-mail programs—so that you don’t have to start from scratch. Much of the functionality is the same, including e-mail search and calendar/contact syncing from your phone or tablet. But unlike mainstream e-mail, it doesn’t mine personal data or sell your information. The trade-off is that instead of paying with your data as you do on “free” services such as Gmail, you pay with actual money. A basic plan costs $3 a month or $30 a year.
If you’re looking to take your privacy a step further, consider ProtonMail. With servers based in Switzerland, all user data is fully protected by strict Swiss privacy laws. ProtonMail encrypts all user information and only the account holder can decrypt it. So even if ProtonMail wanted to sell your information, that information would be worthless to information brokers. ProtonMail is free, but donations are accepted. It’s also worth noting that some e-mail services have started allowing users to opt out of data collection, however. To see if yours does, search online for your e-mail provider and “opt out data collection.”
Use a virtual private network. Virtual private networks (VPNs) give you secure, private web browsing. These services charge around $35 to $80 per year. You can turn them on and off with the click of a button. VPNs make it nearly impossible for anyone to monitor your activity by making it appear that your activity is taking place through a distant server, not at your computer or phone. The drawback is that VPNs—like TunnelBear or SaferVPN—also thwart benign personal data collection that exists for convenience and to enhance user experience. Example: If you’re using a VPN in Los Angeles and open Yelp or Google to search for Indian restaurants near you, you might get a list of great places to eat in Leipzig instead of LA.
Throw away your reward cards. Just as Google and Facebook aren’t actually free, rewards cards take your information in exchange for a few pennies saved on deodorant. Rewards programs track the time of day you shop, the amount of money you spend and the things you buy. That information, of course, is for sale—and much of it winds up in Facebook and Google server farms, as well as in the data warehouses maintained by the companies that make almost any product you buy.
Stick with a dumb home. The porch light comes on when your phone says the sun has set. Your deadbolt locks automatically if your phone moves away from your home. Smart homes, connected homes and the Internet of Things are amazing technological advances that represent the wave of the future. They’re also data factories that churn out huge amounts of personal information, all of which is then collected and sold by the companies that give these devices life. Many smart home devices feature digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri. These voice-directed devices are always listening—they have to in order to function. Example: When you say your “wake word,” Amazon Alexa begins streaming audio to the cloud. You can set privacy settings to turn off the microphone and prevent these devices from waking or taking instructions, but then, what’s the point of owning one?
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook updated its privacy settings and made them easier to find and navigate. Here are easy ways you can make your Facebook experience safer and more private now. The Settings menu can be accessed by clicking on the triangle in the upper-right corner of your Facebook page. (The following instructions are for Facebook on a desktop computer. The instructions are a bit different for the Facebook app on your smartphone or tablet. But if you start by tapping on the “hamburger menu”—the icon that looks like three stacked dashes—you should be able to find the Settings menu.)
Shut out third-party apps. The problem isn’t just that Facebook has your data. It’s that all the associated third-party apps you use have access to it, too. Go to: Settings>Apps and Websites. From there, just check off all the apps you’d like to remove. Of course, if there’s an app you can’t live without, feel free to keep it. Just remember that it’s likely selling your data.
Don’t let your likes become ads. If you like a post about a company or product, for example, Facebook’s default settings allow that like to be used as a promotion designed to get your friends to like it or share it as well. Go to: Settings>Ads>Ad Settings>Ads that include your social actions. From there, switch visibility to “No One.”
Don’t let Facebook sell your browsing data. Also by default, Facebook shares information from the websites you visit with its advertisers, which is why if you’re a cyclist, you’ll see ads for bikes when you’re on Facebook. So many sites have integrated Facebook Like buttons and other options connected to Facebook that it’s easy for the social-media giant to see most of what you do online. Go to Settings>Ads>Ad Settings>Ads based on data from partners and ads based on your activity, and set both to “Not allowed.”