Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Three Steps to Protect Your Privacy As You Use Facebook and Surf the Web

There's been a bunch of attention given to the topic of Facebook and trust as of late. Some folks got worked up when it was revealed that Facebook would leverage users' browsing history and app data to better target ads. Then there was the infamous study that demonstrated your news feed was not really personalized to you but could be manipulated as Facebook sees fit.

What I find ironic is that people will vent a great deal at Facebook while doing little to protect their own privacy. Whether they are ignoring Facebook settings that can better secure their information, approving unnecessary and untrustworthy apps or even giving up personal information without thinking, consumers are generally their own worst enemy.

I thought I would share a few suggestions that you might consider if you are concerned about the collection and use of your personal information and surfing habits.

Check the Facebook Applications Accessing Your Personal Data

You probably think that you have been careful and only given permission to access your Facebook data to familiar and trusted applications. You are probably wrong, and it only takes a couple minutes to find out.

While some express concern about what Facebook may do with their personal data, it is shocking how many people will simply open up their data stream--including their posts, likes, locations, political views, friendships and other data--to complete strangers. This can happen when you give permission to Facebook applications.

It is easy to check if you have unnecessary apps sucking your data:
  • While visiting Facebook in a browser, click the little down arrow in the upper right corner and select "Settings."
  • In the left column, select "Apps."
  • At the bottom of the "Apps You Use" section, click "Show All Apps."
  • Each of the listed applications may be accessing and using your personal data. If you see apps you  no longer use (or may not recognize), click the little "X" on the right and select "Remove" from the pop-up box.
  • If you care to, you can see the permissions you have granted to each application and learn when it last accessed your data.  Simply click on the name of application to view this information:


Use Incognito Windows when completing those silly quizzes 

Everyone loves those online quizzes, don't they? (Well, I don't, but I'm a grumpy old man.) Who doesn't want to know what Tarot card they are, or animal, or Disney princess, or composer, or superhero, or constellation, or deadly sin, or dipping sauce, or punctuation mark... God, I really hate these dumb quizzes. 

If you simply must know what classic rock band you are, then here is a tip:  Go incognito in Google Chrome. To do so, right click on the link to the quiz and select "Open link in incognito window." You can now complete the quiz without having your answers captured and used for ad (or spam) targeting. 

If you simply click the links to these quizzes, the sites can use third-party cookies to associate your answers with your identity or your surfing habits. Think of the kind of personal information these quizzes ask (and most people willingly give up without a second's thought). A question such as "What is your greatest concern?" or "Which question would you most like answered?" can reveal if you have money, health or your love life on your mind. You wouldn't tell your bank or a person on the street that you have concerns about your relationship with your spouse, your finances or your health, so why tell the complete stranger who created the quiz? 

Of course, the safest course of action is to forego those quizzes altogether. And remember, if you share your quiz results on Facebook, you are simply encouraging other people to disclose their personal information to whomever created the quiz. 

Consider Opting Out From Behavioral Advertising (Including Facebook's) 

The Digital Advertising Alliance permits consumers to opt out of behavioral targeting. This tool allows you to see the participating companies that are customizing ads within your browser based on your surfing habits. You can select one or all of them (including Facebook) and choose to opt out. Doing so stores an opt out cookie in your browser, which means you have to repeat the process on every PC and browser you use.

Keep in mind, if you opt out, advertisers cannot target ads that may suit your interests based on your online behaviors. It also means that some free sites and services that rely on advertising revenue may get less of it because of your actions. So, before you hack away at those behavioral ads, consider the ramifications.

For more information or to opt out from this type of online advertising, visit

There are many more ways to protect your privacy when using Facebook or surfing the web, such as tightening your Facebook privacy settings, installing apps to prevent tracking requests in your browser, deleting browser cookies, using anonymous surfing VPN software, and removing your data from marketing databases such as Acxiom.

Of course, if you simply keep giving up your personal data to Facebook applications and sharing your preferences, concerns and activities on quiz sites, no amount of privacy settings or special software will protect you. You are your own best first line of defense.

Musical Bonus

For many years, I have been a big fan of Vienna Teng. Her latest remarkable release, AIMS, is a departure for Teng and takes a more digital direction. Included on the album is a haunting tune that, if you listen carefully, is about the sorts of tracking done by database companies such as Acxiom. Should we object to this tracking, or is it really what we want? Enjoy the tune and ponder the answer.

The Hymn of Acxiom
Lyrics courtesy of Vienna Teng's Website

somebody hears you. you know that. you know that.
somebody hears you. you know that inside.
someone is learning the colors of all your moods, to
(say just the right thing and) show that you’re understood.
here you’re known.

leave your life open. you don’t have. you don’t have.
leave your life open. you don’t have to hide.
someone is gathering every crumb you drop, these
(mindless decisions and) moments you long forgot.
keep them all.

let our formulas find your soul.
we’ll divine your artesian source (in your mind),
marshal feed and force (our machines will)
to design you a perfect love—
or (better still) a perfect lust.
o how glorious, glorious: a brand new need is born.

now we possess you. you’ll own that. you’ll own that.
now we possess you. you’ll own that in time.
now we will build you an endlessly upward world,
(reach in your pocket) embrace you for all you’re worth.

is that wrong?
isn’t this what you want?

No comments: