The high privacy cost of free social media platforms

Social media platforms are completely free to use, but their slick apps and vast data repositories have to be paid for somehow

smartphone with facebook crossed out

Monday, 26 October, 2020

People rarely stop to consider how some of the world’s most-used websites manage to offer their services without charging for the privilege.

It’s free to create an account on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. It’s free to browse these sites and post content. It’s free to create multiple pages, and even to download and use their slick apps.

Unlike the freemium models used by many online games and apps, there are few opportunities to hand over money, unless you want to engage in business advertising.

Native advertising contributes to the immense costs of running these platforms, as ‘sponsored posts’ and ‘you might like’ articles appear alongside conventional brand advertising.

Yet in truth, there’s a much higher price to pay for using social media platforms.

It’s our personal data.

Big Brother is watching, listening, reading…

Companies around the world are proactively harvesting every piece of information they can obtain from social media platforms.

This is stored, analysed and used to build incredibly detailed personal profiles, in preparation for bombarding us with adverts we’re considered likely to respond to.

And although our Google histories are also rich repositories of personally identifiable information (PII), most of our online footprint is generated by social media.

Don’t assume revenue from native advertising is enough to cover the immense costs of running global platforms like Instagram.

The real profits are made by harvesting the information we publish on social media, which is then resold to marketing agencies and permanently ingrained into our online identities.

Even simple actions betray a wealth of PII. As an example, consider checking in on Facebook at your local Italian restaurant.

You’re volunteering the following information:

Facebook will sell this information (and plenty more besides) to companies who’ll use it to calculate your disposable income, lifestyle, hobbies and other demographic data.

This will influence the adverts you see, the content that appears in future Facebook timelines, and the profiles data marketing firms hold about you and the people you know.

You’ll never know who these firms are, what they know, or how they intend to use it. But use it they will, and for many years to come.

There is no right to request data profiles from these anonymous agencies, and it’s very hard to expunge or reverse information once it’s attributed to you.

Move house, and your social media history moves with you. Change ISP, and it’s still linked to any social media platforms you’re registered on.

What can I do to improve my anonymity?

The short answer is to permanently delete every social media account.

However, eschewing the likes of Facebook and Twitter sits uneasily with the current fashion for sharing the minutiae of our lives with the widest possible audience.

Frustratingly, smartphones also prevent you from deleting pre-installed social media apps. You can only deactivate them,.

The most sensible course of action is to reduce your online footprint to the absolute minimum.

Stop publishing selfies. Turn off location tracking, and ensure your phone can’t geolocate in real time.

Never check in on social media, and never tag friends in posts.

Deactivate or delete apps as the permissions allow, logging on via a web browser to conduct essential activities. Log out once each session is finished.

Above all, avoid interacting with other people’s activity. Each like, repost and comment is endlessly scrutinised for what it says about you.

The less you say, the less they know.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!