This Facebook scandal has raised a lot of questions about privacy, confidentiality, ethics and the responsibilities of tech companies who get to see and store the personal data of billions of users. If we didn’t already assume that every little thing we did online was available to everyone, we certainly get it now. But what exactly are these tech companies doing with our information? And are they all just selling it to each other and other companies we’ve never even heard of?
All this tech giant and big data stuff gets really complicated (it seems like you need a computer science degree and a business degree to even sort of understand what’s going on) but here are the basic answers to the questions that are probably the most important to users of social media right now.
First: You are not the customer
The important thing about social media is to remember that you are not the customer, you are the product. The tech company (whether it be Facebook, Amazon or Google) is selling you, your eyes and your wallet to companies that want to advertise to you. The real customers here are those ad companies. The only reason why all of us get to use these online services for free is because the tech companies are generating money by using our information to show us ads we’re more likely to click on. No matter what Mark Zuckerberg says, Facebook is not free to the masses because he wants to “connect the world.”
Who is saving and using our info?
Short answer: Everyone.
Longer answer: A lot of social media companies like Facebook and Instagram (fun fact: they’re owned by the same people) sell the information they have on you to third parties including “data brokers” or “information brokers” which maintain this data as well as collect more of it when you’re not even logged into the sites they work with. These third-parties analyze, package and sell this data typically without your permission or input.
Google is different. They have their own data broker so they don’t have to outsource it. They keep all your data to themselves and they probably have more of it than any other platform. Consider everything Google owns: YouTube, Gmail, Maps and a whole alphabet of other things. It’s hard to imagine the scope of what that company knows about you.
How much information are we talking exactly?
These platforms collect and retain pretty much everything you do on them and even some stuff you do when you’re logged out. Mark Zuckerberg even admitted this week that he doesn’t know how long Facebook stores user data after someone deletes their account. The stuff they have on you includes personal information, contact information, locations, ads you click, sites you visit and search queries.
Google also searches keywords in your emails; knows every YouTube video you’ve ever clicked on and how long you watched it for; and stores every location you’ve ever been to and how long you were there.
Amazon knows every product you’ve ever looked at and uses your buying and search history to project other purchases you might want to make in the future. If you buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting now, don’t be surprised if in nine months you start seeing ads for baby clothes and breast pumps. They might be keeping better track of your life than you are.
What can you do about it?
If you want to use these platforms, not much. You can change your privacy settings to limit what third-party applications are connected to your Facebook profile, but other than that, you don’t have a whole lot of choice. The price of using these sites is your personal data and we all signed that away when we check-marked that Terms and Conditions page without a second glance.