For the past decade we’ve seen the incredible power that comes from social media. With the world brought together, friendships and connections have been made that would have been impossible before. However, as social media and online interactions have become common place, the concept of privacy in the modern age has become almost non-existent. Everyone knows that “big scary tech” tracks everything you do and knows your likes, dislikes, hobbies, online interactions, and every other bit of personal information about you. Despite the overwhelming odds, there’s still a lot you can do to reduce the amount of information these companies know about you. With some common sense and an understanding of big tech’s business practices, you might be able to rest a little easier at night knowing Apple isn’t spying on you through your webcam.
Before diving into preventive measures, I’m going to ask for some introspection as I try to put everything in perspective. I think the most important thing to consider is your personal definition of privacy and what you’re comfortable sharing with tech companies and the internet as a whole. This is going to be different for everyone. On one extreme you have your super paranoid tech savvy millennial who doesn’t have any social media, covers their cell phone camera with a tiny stick-on camera shutter, and refuses to have pictures taken of them posted to Facebook. On the other end is the social media influencer who posts daily vlogs and shares Instagram stories of them tying their shoes just to remind their audience that they are relatable. Some people care a little too much about their online privacy, some people don’t care enough, and most people are in the middle. When reading through this article, just keep in mind what you’re willing to make public and what you want to keep private.
Another thing to keep in mind is the risk associated with providing any company your personal information. While most companies will only track your data to use it for marketing and analytical purposes, any website, service, or company that knows your name, address, birthday, credit card information, and favorite color is entrusted with that data. They’ll store it away, use it rarely if at all, but if that company is hacked and a breach of data occurs, your data is at risk. While most companies tell you security is important, neglect and mistakes cause more vulnerabilities than you would like to think. So always keep in mind what information you provide to websites.
The most obvious solution to protecting your online privacy is to avoid social media entirely. Simply not having a Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. means there are less sources of information about you online and less chances of your personal data being used for the economic benefit of these companies. Of course, social media’s many benefits mean that most people will not be able to give it up, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take to be more protected.
Protect your birthdate: having your birthday on your Facebook profile (or having friends and family members post on your wall about your birthday… on your birthday) is a very easy way for anyone with access to Facebook to figure out your birthdate. Using a fake birthdate, making your birthdate private, or making posts to your wall private are great ways to stop potential identity theft.
Avoid third party software: I’m talking about those links that show up on your feed inviting you to play a game or take a quiz. These are very popular, but you need to pay attention to the permissions you give to these websites. Most only ask for access to your name and profile picture, but others will request access to your friends list, birthdate, email, phone number, and whatever else they can get their hands on. Also keep in mind that whatever website you interact with is another company that now has some amount of your personal data. Maybe you don’t need to know which Hogwarts House you would be in, but if you REALLY need to know just make sure they’re not probing your account for everything they can find.
Limit app permissions: The settings app on your phone is your saving grace for privacy. Most phones will allow you to set permissions for every app on it, including your favorite social media apps. This is where you can limit the amount of access these apps have to your camera, location, storage, etc. For example, disabling Instagram’s access to your camera, contacts, and location still means you can upload photos from your local storage without providing Instagram access to more than it actually needs. Permissions is entirely up to you and what you determine is enough access for each app to have.
Watch what you post: This one’s a no brainer. If you want to limit the amount of data social media companies have on you, maybe refrain from getting too personal on those websites. People that reveal every aspect of their daily lives on social media need to understand that this information can (and will be) tracked by social media companies to be used for analytics and marketing in the future. When it’s out there, it’s out there forever.
As I said before, you can do all these things, or none of them. It ultimately depends on your definition of privacy and what you’re willing to share with tech companies and, in part, the world. And it doesn’t just stop here. Online privacy (or at least what’s left of it) can be protected in many other ways than just social media. Taking steps to limit permissions on your phones, computers, and other devices will help you keep even more of your information private. Maybe by that point, you’ll far enough down the rabbit hole to go off the grid and never use the internet again.