Users of the internet know that they’re being tracked by the platforms they use — most notably by Google and Facebook. Although users have some understanding, they do not realize just how little privacy they are entitled to on the internet. The world has become increasingly reliant on the internet especially in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only exacerbated the problem of a lack of privacy.
The practice of doxing, the releasing of personal information such as address, phone number, even employers, can have a grievous effect on the victims. Their social media presence can be ruined by the hackers — which has more of an impact on famous individuals and influencers — and there will be records of their personal details all over the internet, even if deleted.
Even if users take appropriate safety precautions on social media — updating advanced privacy settings where available and not sharing personal information with strangers on the internet, among other measures — they are still at risk for data leaks. Deep web hackers are able to break through firewalls and grab your personal information, whether to put it up for ransom or to commit identity theft. It is important to understand that the individual’s personal details that were stolen are not the only risk, but also pieces of information that seem mundane, such as Facebook friend lists. That gathered info can also be used to replicate the account if not take it over, and attack the victim’s friends, repeating the cycle.
Privacy is limited not only by cyberattackers and outsiders but even by the social media companies themselves. In 2014, a study was conducted on how well Facebook knew you based on what you liked. After just 10 likes, the AI knew you better than a work colleague/acquaintance; it took 70 likes for the computer to know you better than a close friend. Furthermore, at the 150 like mark, the computer knows you better than a sibling or even parent. The algorithm took it even further, knowing you better than a spouse after 300 likes. The typical user in 2014 had approximately 277 likes, for context. In the past few years, Facebook has expanded their horizons, not only tracking Facebook users’ web activity, but non-users as well.
Facebook, in a way, is able to change users’ emotions and moods based on what posts it sends their way. In conjunction with Cornell University, Facebook conducted an experiment on whether they could alter the moods of users. If the users are sent more positive emotional content, they are more likely to make positive posts; if they get sent more negative posts, they will more likely make more negative or pessimistic posts.
But what do they do with all this information? Social media are essentially selling users’ personal information to advertisers, in a never ending cycle of profit. The advertisers send users personalized, targeted ads using the user’s data, making it more likely that the user will buy the advertised product; while the social media company makes money selling the data to the advertisers, continuing the cycle.
Privacy is nonexistent on the internet, which can be terrifying. However, this doesn’t mean you should delete your social media presence completely. Keeping personal details off your social media can make a major difference in how safe you are, as well as keeping your advanced privacy settings up to date.