Have you noticed how some of the ads on the sites you visit seem to be a perfect match to your interests? Think that’s a coincidence? On the web it certainly isn’t, as advertisers would do just about anything the online environment allows them to do – even if it means breaking your online privacy – to develop new ways to promote products. And the easiest way for them to find out your likes and habits is keeping a close eye on your social media behaviour.
There are several ways advertisers can invade your social media privacy, take advantage of your data and make you a target for their ads. Here are the most common ones:
It involves tracking people’s activities online and harvesting personal data and conversations from social media, job websites and online forums. Usually, research companies are the harvesters, and sell the compiled data to other companies. These, in turn, use these details to design targeted ad campaigns for their products. While one might argue that people are knowingly sharing personal details on social media and thus, it’s free for everyone’s use, data harvesters don’t ask for the owner’s consent. And this raises an ethics as well as an online privacy problem.
One strong case for serious online privacy violation took place in May 2011. Nielsen Co., a media-research company, was caught scraping every message off PatientsLikeMe's online forums, where people talk about their emotional problems – in what they think is a safe, private environment. As you can imagine a lot of people felt their web privacy was violated.
Facebook apps leaking personal data.
It has been reported several times that certain Facebook apps are leaking identifying information about those who are using them, to advertising and Internet tracking companies. And without the users having a clue!
Here’s how the “leakage” works: during the app’s installation process, you are prompted to accept certain terms, and once you click “Allow”, the application receives an “access token”. Some of the Facebook apps are leaking these access tokens to advertisers, granting them access to personal-profile data such as chat logs and photos. However, no disclaimer is showed announcing you your data is being transferred to third parties. Thus your online privacy and safety are put at risk.
Examples of apps that have been found to leak identifying information include FarmVille and Family Tree.
Online social tracking.
We all use the “Like”, “Tweet”, “+1”, and other buttons to share content with our friends. But these social widgets are also valuable tracking tools for social media websites. They work with cookies – small files stored on a computer that enable tracking the user across different sites – that social websites place in browsers when you create an account or log in, and together they allow the social websites to recognize you on any site that uses these widgets. Thus, your interests and online shopping behaviour can be easily tracked, and your internet privacy rudely invaded.
And things get worse. Other social websites allow companies to place within ads cookies and beacons – pieces of software that can track you and gather information about what you are doing on a page. Note: these tracking tools are widely used online but mostly on websites dedicated to kids and teens, which raises a huge children’s online privacy concern.
An example of a teen-dedicated site that stores lots of tracking cookies is Snazzyspace.com.
How can you prevent your data and online behaviour from being scraped, leaked or tracked?
- Unfortunately, you cannot control the data scraping, but you can control how much information about yourself you put out there. So, edit your privacy settings right. Also, if you find yourself in the database of some “people-search” site you can ask them to remove your details, and then edit down the information made public via social networking.
- Facebook privacy issues should be a main concern when networking. As engaging applications created by independent software developers show up frequently, you can’t know which ones are the leakers. Sometimes, Facebook doesn’t either. We strongly recommend that you change your Facebook password after accepting an app, to invalidate those access tokens.
- Even if cookies are not necessarily harmful, just picture them as a quiet stalker following your every step. You can delete them from your web browser and limit what types of cookies may be placed on the computer.
- As for your kids’ privacy while networking, we encourage you to have a talk with them about online privacy threats. Also, use software to monitor their online activity. In this respect, BullGuard Internet Security and BullGuard Mobile Security can act as vigilant privacy guards on the PC and smartphone, respectively. The Parental Control feature incorporated in both suites enables you to see what your kids are up to online and block their access to certain websites or content.