In recent weeks, a spate of news stories and media coverage has shone an unflattering light on big data, and how it’s being used to target consumers.
Channel 4 News led with a story about Facebook ads being used to deter black voters from voting in the 2016 US election, while Netflix’s The Social Dilemma documentary has been trending in the UK.
After years of print media coverage, it seems broadcasters are also increasingly keen to uncover how the data we voluntarily provide about ourselves is being used.
While much of this is simply to sell us goods and services, it can also be used negatively – as Channel 4 News proved.
Worse, anything in the public domain can potentially be viewed and exploited by people with a grudge against us – vengeful former friends or partners, and even career criminals.
Uploading a photograph of a newly acquired sports car on social media might advertise the car’s presence to thieves, who may be specifically looking for that make and model.
This is especially true if your house number is visible in the photo, or if your address is a matter of public record elsewhere on the internet.
Below, we consider ways to juggle communicating with the world with staying safe on social media and not revealing too much about ourselves along the way.
Minimising Personally Identifiable Information
A lengthy social media post will yield reams of data about your likes and (more commonly) dislikes, but written content isn’t the only way marketing firms can harvest personal content.
Photos are now the most common unit of social media currency, with Instagram increasingly used to microblog every aspect of our lives.
Each location tag, check-in, like and hashtag is aggregated into vast databases which are resold and exploited by businesses across numerous industries.
You’re constantly being profiled and evaluated based on the content you upload. And once certain information is associated with you, it’s very hard to erase.
Reduce this occurrence by minimising your use of hashtags, and keeping accompanying posts or captions brief.
“Had a great day with my mates” is more discreet than “Loved John’s stag do at Zorb Football in Blackpool”, especially if your friends are all tagged in each photo.
You might want to conduct some research or consume certain content (such as YouTube videos) while logged out, so this activity isn’t associated with your account.
This can be helpful while researching potential employers, staff or tradespeople on LinkedIn. If you were logged in, they’d know you’d viewed their profile.
Even if you’re cavalier about privacy, other people may not be.
Consider obscuring the faces of people who haven’t consented to appear in social media images. This is particularly important for children, and even more so if they’re in care or adopted.
The bokeh blurring option offered by modern selfie cameras is great for preventing third parties identifying who was in the background, or where a particular image was taken.
Don’t advertise imminent or current holidays if someone could find your address online, which might amount to advertising an empty house to burglars.
More safety-conscious individuals should adopt a similar policy regarding housemates or partners going away, to avoid telling the world they’re home alone.
It may be easier to make online accounts private, so only known contacts can view your profiles and posts.
Finally, the nuclear option for staying safe on social media is to simply stop posting.
Historic information will remain available unless you permanently close your account, but you won’t be contributing any more PII.
Deactivating an account retains content that might otherwise be lost forever, while preventing anyone else finding or viewing it.
Information you’ve already contributed won’t be removed from those publicly-inaccessible data lakes, however. Even if you delete something, it’s still logged against your name.
This underlines the importance of thinking before you upload content – and never posting in haste, or while under the influence…