Online privacy

Rising mistrust: Facebook lost a million users in North America in the last quarter of 2017.

From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to online identity fraud, privacy has become one of the internet’s biggest battlegrounds. But there are still ways to protect yourself online.

  • Why does it matter?

    In March 2018, it emerged that Facebook exposed the data of 87 million people to Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy company. The data was used to influence voter opinion on behalf of its clients, including Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the campaign for the UK to leave the EU.

    The scandal was a disaster for Facebook, wiping hundreds of millions off its share price. Mark Zuckerberg apologised for the situation, calling it a “breach of trust”.

    The UK’s data protection watchdog investigated the scandal. In July, it hit the company with a £500,000 fine for mishandling user data.

  • How much does Facebook really know?

    Enough to make a lot of people feel uncomfortable. Just look at the advertisements that appear in your Facebook feed. They will frequently advertise clothes or other merchandise that you have been looking at elsewhere online.

    There are three ways Facebook does this. One comes from what you tell Facebook, for example, your name, age, marital status and where you live. Another is what you do whilst on Facebook: which groups you have joined; your friends, what you have liked.

    The third is what you do on the rest of the internet. Facebook tracks this information via cookies and uses that information to tailor its adverts.

  • That’s pretty sinister.

    Yes, but it’s perfectly legal. However, you can have some control over this. Find an ad in your Facebook news stream and look for a little arrow (or three dots for a sponsored post). Click on it. Then click on “Why am I seeing this?” From there, you can navigate to your “Ad Preferences”, where you’ll see a list of interests, such as “Sports”.

    You’ll also be able to look at your “Ad Settings”. From here, you’ll be able to choose whether or not to let Facebook show you ads based on other websites you visit. You will still be shown ads, but Facebook will not use your data to choose them.

  • Should I be less open on social media?

    The more information you share online, the easier it’s going to be for someone to get their hands on it. In most cases, the people who want your phone number or email address will already have them.

    Social networks also have settings whereby only people you know can see your content. In Facebook, go to “Settings” by clicking on the small triangle in the upper right-hand corner, then click on “Privacy” and edit who can see your posts. If you are on Twitter or Instagram, you can set your account to private so that only your followers can see your posts, and you can choose whether someone follows you or not.

  • What about even more serious safety measures?

    Use strong passwords and don’t share them with anyone. Ideally use a random combination of numbers, letters and punctuation over eight characters long. Several sites can automatically generate random passwords for you.

    Using the same password for every site is a very bad idea. If someone gets hold of it, they can attack all your accounts and cause all sorts of trouble. Password-protect all your devices.

  • What is going to happen next?

    Calls have grown for the Government to try to rein in social media giants. Even Zuckerberg has acknowledged that it might be time for regulators to step in.

    The Obama administration proposed the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, outlining consumers’ rights to control their personal data, and requirements for transparency and security. It failed to pass and, in 2017, President Trump signed legislation repealing privacy protections for internet users.

    But with Silicon Valley under such a cloud, some believe a new age of privacy could dawn.

You Decide

  1. How much do you care about what Google and Facebook know about you?


  1. Suggest a measure to protect your internet privacy that is not mentioned in this piece.

Word Watch

Cambridge Analytica
The company got the data from Aleksandr Kogan of Cambridge University. Kogan built a quiz using a Facebook app that not only collected data from users, but also exposed a loophole that allowed it to collect data from the Facebook friends of the quiz-takers.
Facebook says the data was collected for academic purposes, and then wrongly handed over to Cambridge Analytica.
Information Commissioner’s Office.
The maximum allowed under data protection laws at the time of the scandal. It will not make much of a dent in Facebook’s £445 billion valuation.
Messages sent between your web browser and a website. They are useful for things like remembering passwords, or tracking items in shopping carts.
Ads based on other websites
Facebook calls these ads “interest-based ads”.
Privacy protections
The EU has enacted the General Data Protection Regulation, a new privacy law designed to make sure users understand the data that companies collect about them, and consent to sharing it.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.