By Justin Chandler
When you use an app or upload a selfie, you’re giving away personal information.
The problem is that you don’t know how much, according to privacy and technology expert William Wolfe-Wylie, because the apps and accounts don’t need your permission to make changes that you might not notice.*
“The impressions of what we sign up for are very rarely what ends up happening,” he said.
Wolfe-Wylie is a coder at CBC and a contract lecturer at the Ryerson School of Journalism.
“The simple idea of throwing out there what you like is not something that is broadly understood,” he said.
“When was the last time you went into Facebook and actively went into the ‘TV shows I like’ section and ‘artists I like’ section and filled that out and tagged it up?”
For me, it’s been years. But I follow artists I like on Instagram, which Facebook owns, as Wolfe-Wylie is quick to point out. Using the people I’m friends with and the demographics I fit into, it’s not hard for Facebook to quickly determine what else I’m interested in.
Facebook collects everything from photo locations to credit card information. The reason being, according to Facebook’s data policy, the website is “passionate about creating engaging and customized experiences for people.”
Tech companies like Facebook and Google show you similar content you engage with and specific ads by using algorithms and, at times, they have to provide government investigators with specific user information. And what about Facebook’s new facial tracking feature? The social media company uses the feature to associate photos of users with their accounts, ostensibly to help them monitor when photos of them are appearing on the platform.
“We don’t control what happens to the data in the future”
Users can opt out, but even people who don’t have Facebook are being scanned, Wolfe-Wylie said. “Essentially, what Facebook has done is figure out a way to identify people who aren’t on Facebook, which networks they belong in and by extension, if they should ever sign up to Facebook. [They also] have retroactive data on what they’re into and what advertising categories they may fit into,” Wolfe-Wylie said. “We start entering into weird, shady areas of consent now.”
If someone uploads photos of their kids to Facebook, as they grow up, the company catalogues their lives, he said. When that kid is old enough to sign up for the service, all that data is there, ready to be associated with their face, even though they didn’t give it to Facebook in the first place.
When we share online, sometimes we forget that “we don’t control what happens to the data in the future,” Wolfe-Wylie added.
An example of that is Snapchat. It became popular on the promise that users’ photos would expire quickly after being viewed. In June, the app introduced a new feature that shows users’ locations on a map. This feature took a lot of people by surprise, with critics saying it put users at risk of revealing their locations involuntarily, something Wolfe-Wylie thinks he witnessed first hand.
The first time Wolfe-Wylie opened a random location story on Snap Map, he saw a picture of “a kid taking a naked selfie in the mirror,” shared publicly and tagged with the child’s location for anyone to see.
So, according to Wolf-Wylie, “active and informed consent” is what consumers need to push for in their digital products and services.
Google is another company that may be taking more of your data than you bargained for. Even if you have location services off on your phone, Google creates a list of all locations you sign into your account from.
At a time when app usage determines how much people pay for bike rentals, and police use social media data to predict who’s likely to commit crimes, people may want to reduce what they share about themselves.
Wolfe-Wylie has suggestions for surviving in this “terrifying world”:
- Post less to give sites less information about you.
- Periodically, open the settings in your apps and accounts to see what you’re sharing.
- Delete your accounts if you’re not using them.
- Ask other people not to tag you in photos so you have more control.
*Clarification: This article has been updated to include that social media platforms and apps still need users’ permission to access their information, but those users may not be aware or fully understand the terms and conditions.