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How Secure Is Your Privacy on Social Media and Web Search?

As an educational content writer with a Master’s Degree in Computer Science, I write articles such as this to offer insight and awareness.

Your online activity is always being tracked. Learn how in this article.

Your online activity is always being tracked. Learn how in this article.

Privacy? What privacy?

All your online activity is monitored because that information is useful for advertising.

For example, Facebook, Google, and Netflix make money by tracking your web activity on social media and when you search the Internet. They use that data to sell information about your interests to ad agencies. That’s why advertising works so well.

In addition, your privacy is at risk because others use the same web tracking to learn about you. That is known to be done by the NSA and China.1

How Web Tracking Works

Most websites have code snippets to track you, which Google gives free to all webmasters. It benefits the webmaster because it helps track activity. And it also benefits Google because your website visits indicate your interests.

I use Google’s code on my site, too, since I can see the demographics of my visitors. Age, sex, location, what search query they entered to end up on my site, how long they read, the website they visited last, etc.

You can see why website admins desire to place Google’s code on their site. In return, Google captures all that data on everyone.

How Facebook Is Exploiting You

People in the United States and other countries are beginning to realize they are being exploited by the platform Zuckerberg created to harvest the data about their lives to increase ad revenue.

On the other hand, Europe has strict laws that help online users become more aware of being tracked. It’s called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).2 Their privacy is still up for grabs, but at least they know about it.

I was 34 when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, was born on May 14th, 1984. I would never have imagined that this newborn who came into the world not far from me (he was born in White Plains, NY) would grow up and become so powerful an influence over the web, the media, and the news—with online content being consumed by the masses.

Facebook’s Terms of Service Reveals How They Use Your Data

I can’t blame Zuckerberg. He had been honest about Facebook’s use of personal information. He clearly states the terms of service—limiting users’ rights. But most people never read those lengthy agreements.

Now users are being alerted about what they overlooked or ignored, and most people don’t like what they are discovering—about how little privacy protection they actually have.

Even worse, people are finding out that they can’t easily delete their Facebook account because they made connections between Facebook and other websites with likes and shares.3

Using Facebook to Log Into Other Accounts Disregards Security

Many web services allow you to log in with Facebook instead of creating a unique login with your email and password. However, it's best to avoid using Facebook to log into other services since they can monitor all your activity on those sites.

In addition, if you use Facebook to create other account logins, you need to disconnect that access if you ever want to cancel your Facebook account. Any activity on those other sites will cause your Facebook account to remain active when you try to delete it.

It’s best to remove permission from Facebook to log into those accounts. Instead, create a separate login with your email and a password used individually for each site. That will protect your privacy with the activity you do on those sites.

You can find all the connections you created by going to your settings page on your Facebook account and clicking “Apps and Websites” to see a list of all the sites you gave Facebook permission to access.

Facebook’s Transparency, Choice, and Control

In an op-ed by Mark Zuckerberg in the WSJ on January 24th, 2019, he claims that they need your information for operation and security, but you still control whether they use it for advertising.4

While I understand they need to determine fake accounts and who is dangerous, it remains that they capture a lot of knowledge about you. That information about everything you do, love, enjoy, and dislike is worth a fortune! That's why Facebook wants it. And they are not alone, as I'll discuss in a moment.

In another WSJ article a day later, Mark Zuckerberg was quoted as saying, “Ultimately, I believe the most important principles around data are transparency, choice, and control.”

He went on to say that they don’t sell people's data. I can believe that. They don’t outright sell data about your interests, but they do use it to sell advertising space with ads related to your interest. That knowledge demands a higher fee for the ad space.

What do you get for it? Nothing. No compensation. No sharing of the profits.

All you get is an influx of ads about items you are presently searching for or have talked about with your friends via email or social media.

Facebook’s Choice and Control Options

Choice and control have been an option on Facebook for many years now. You can choose to allow or not allow other people to see your likes, your friends, your posts, and so on. All this can be enabled or disabled on the privacy settings page.

However, as far as I can tell, all your data is still used to sell advertising, even if you don’t share your data with other viewers. That is the price you pay for using Facebook. That is what you agreed to when you opened your account—if you had read the terms or not.

Why Netflix Monitors Your Viewing History

Netflix keeps a record of the movies you watch. They use that information to offer suggestions you might want to watch.

They determine your interests not only from the movies you watch but also when you quit watching movies in the first few minutes. A short view duration indicates your dislikes, which is just as important in determining your feelings about the content.

Your movie viewing behavior is monitored by Netflix.

Your movie viewing behavior is monitored by Netflix.

The National Security Agency Intercepts Your Search Queries

A report in the Washington Post on October 30th, 2013, mentioned the National Security Agency has secretly hacked into Yahoo and Google data centers to find out what you are searching for to determine if you might be a dangerous person.5

Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, said about the hacking, “We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks.” Nevertheless, their servers remain penetrable.

The National Security Agency hacked into Yahoo and Google data centers to scrutinize your search history.

The National Security Agency hacked into Yahoo and Google data centers to scrutinize your search history.

China Is Also Watching You

They are indeed watching their own citizens. Nevertheless, they are continually attempting to attack websites in the United States with malware to find information about Americans.6

China uses an algorithm that places a social media score on every citizen who uses the Internet.7

The score is adjusted to punish or reward people based on several criteria:

  1. What they say online, either by email, text, or social media.
  2. What their online connections say.
  3. What their friends say.

Be Alert to Coffee Shop Patrons Hacking Your Online Activity

Hackers can hook into your data transmissions and watch everything you do when you are on a public Wi-Fi network, such as in a coffee shop.

Therefore, if you log into a site or enter a credit card number to buy something, they can capture all that data and use it to steal your identity or merely to buy something and charge it to your card.

Hackers can steal your identity if you use public Wi-Fi, such as in a coffee shop.

Hackers can steal your identity if you use public Wi-Fi, such as in a coffee shop.

How Encrypted Sites Are Helpful

You should only conduct online business on encrypted sites. That will reduce the chances that someone will be able to decipher the data. That is because the critical data will be encrypted.

It's not 100% protection, though. The domain and subdomain in the URL are not encrypted. It can’t be because it needs to be visible so the network can reach the destination site.

However, when you are visiting an encrypted site, three fundamental pieces of information are hidden from eavesdroppers:

  1. Additional tagged on information which is not part of the URL itself.
  2. All page content and text.
  3. All submitted form data.

You’ll know you are visiting an encrypted site when the URL has "https://" in front of the domain name. Note the "s" for "secure." In addition, your browser will display a lock icon near the URL.

Privacy Issues With Loyalty Cards

When you use Loyalty Cards to save money at supermarkets and other stores, you give merchants information on your buying habits and product interests. At least you get something in return—reward discounts.

I feel giving a merchant the information on our buying habits is worth it for the benefit involved. But, of course, it depends on how much privacy one wants to give up in return for discounted merchandise.

Key Takeaways

When surfing the net, sharing your life stories with friends on social media, and even when sending emails, remember that you're sharing vital information that others can use to their advantage.

The Internet has evolved into a powerful resource that has changed the world. It has made life a lot easier with tools we take for granted:

  • Store loyalty cards,
  • Search engine research,
  • Price comparison shopping,
  • GPS navigation on smartphones,
  • Patient portals to see your health reports,
  • Secure bill paying to avoid lost checks in the mail,
  • and so much more.

All this is useful as long as you use it to your advantage. You just need to understand the risks and know how to protect yourself. So be mindful that your identity has a price tag, and everyone wants a piece of it.

Resources

  1. Ryan Morgan. (March 15, 2022). China claims it captured NSA’s ‘global internet control’ spy tool. American Military News
  2. Justin Jaffe and Laura Hautala, (May 25, 2018). What the GDPR means for Facebook, the EU and you. CNET.com
  3. Author. (Dec 14, 2009). Facebook's Deception of Deactivated Accounts. TurboFuture.com
  4. Mark Zuckerberg. (Jan. 24, 2019). The Facts About Facebook. WSJ Magazine
  5. Washington Post Staff. (October 30, 2013). Google statement on NSA infiltration of links between data centers. Washington Post
  6. Author. (Sept 29, 2011). How to Monitor Your Website for Cyber-Hacker Attacks and Stop Them. TurboFuture.com
  7. Darlene Storm. (Oct 7, 2015). Security Is Sexy. Computerworld

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Glenn Stok

Comments

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on February 10, 2019:

Natalie - We can avoid it, but most of use would rather take advantage of the features of the internet. I’m included. I love letting my phone guide me with its gps, and tell me what restaurants are near, and alert me when I’m due for a doctors appointment. I know I’m giving away my privacy. We all do it in favor of the convenience.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on February 10, 2019:

As if I wasn't paranoid enough before! Thanks for the info though. I think we can be complacent when we don't believe we can do anything about these sorts of issues. Being armed with the information is the first step.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on February 01, 2019:

Very true Dora, The loss of privacy starts with people allowing it without paying attention to what they are giving away.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 01, 2019:

Glenn, thank you very much for making us aware of these goings on. We really don't know all that we're signing up for when sign up on these sites. Heaven help us now.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on February 01, 2019:

Yes, he knew human nature Kathleen, and he took advantage of it.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on February 01, 2019:

The first night, when his friend wrote out the algorithm on his dorm window showing him how to mass-blog, Zuckerberg said, "And we don't have to hack. People provide the information." And we have.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on January 31, 2019:

Maria Sol - Methods such as using VPNs are not totally protective either. Information to your identity still passes through. So I have to disagree that they do “a solid job at mitigating your exposure” as you had said.

However, I do agree with you that it comes down to people accepting losing privacy for convenience. I do it too. For example I love to use the GPS in my iPhone to guide me to unknown places even though I know that Apple uses that information to know exactly what I do and where I go so that they can sell that information to ad agencies.

I appreciate the entire rest of your comments as you accurately describe the situation and the way people behave, either not paying attention or simply accepting the facts. Well said.

Mary's Crumbs on January 31, 2019:

As you mentioned, Facebook's growth has stagnated. However, while part of that stagnation may be due to increased public awareness of privacy issues with that specific platform, I do not believe that it represents an overall increase in a public interest for online privacy in general.

It comes down to accepting a loss of privacy in exchange for convenience. It is amazing how many people are willing to do just that.

While becoming a digital hermit and returning to an analog existence is not a viable option, using VPNs and using live-USB operating systems are a way to insulate yourself from the prying eyes of governments, ISPs, internet platforms, and those plotting "man in the middle" attacks. By no means are these methods 100 percent efficient, but they can do a solid job at mitigating your exposure.

Realistically, however, even those who have the knowledge and skills to implement such methods to safeguard their privacy don't do it. Again, it comes down to convenience.

Many see no problem in sacrificing a bit of their personal data in exchange for whatever "must have" service they are receiving. Unfortunately, few consider how all of this information can be aggregated and used to create scaringly accurate profiles of themselves, their lifestyle, and that of their family and others close to them.

To me, privacy is not so much a right than an asset. In the American system, there is no specific "right to privacy" mentioned in the U.S. Constitution; although privacy is implied in matters of belief, the home, one's person and possessions. To me, this means that it is up to the individual to safeguard their privacy as much as possible — the same way they would any other asset.

As long as we do not reach a stage when government regulations begin to favor the internet giants over the individual citizen in the battle for privacy, all is not lost. Of course, there are those who believe that we have already crossed that threshold and that privacy has long been dead.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on January 31, 2019:

Pamela Oglesby - It's true--it's not limited to the big guys. Anyone can look up personal information on one another, but only to th extent that people allow it. That's why it's important to keep a due diligence on your online activity.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 31, 2019:

I knew after 9/11 that the NSA gained the right to snoop into emails and interent activities as they were looking for radical people. I never worried about them too much as they would be bored reading my stuff, however, I do not like the idea of China, Google and Facebook gathering my information. I think you can find out most anything about anybody now, and I do not like that.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on January 31, 2019:

Liz Westwood - That's a whole other story. An entire article could be devoted to the privacy issues with Alexa devices such as Echo and Dot.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 31, 2019:

It's all disturbing stuff. What about the voice activated devices like Echo or Dot? We can never be sure who is eavesdropping on us.