There’s been much coverage of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to the US government law-makers (as they are reverently referred to by sections of the media). This follows the revelations that a company called Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of Facebook users (including that of Zuckerberg himself) without their knowledge, or indeed without the knowledge of Facebook. Zuckerberg’s testimony is remarkable for the way in which it revealed senators’ and congress-people’s ignorance of the way Facebook works and of the underlying technologies. Our own politicians are no wiser in the ways of social media.
The way Facebook works is simple: you provide it with data and it sells advertising. It connects the two by enabling advertisers to target their advertisements to its users by profiling those users. Now, it can provide those profiles without revealing the personal data of the individuals that constitute that profile although it can be pretty specific. In the case of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook did not adequately protect those individuals’ data. It is easy to be critical here; we need to remember that social media is a new phenomenon. There has never been an organisation, whether private or public, that has had access to, and that has needed to protect, such a massive volume and range of information.
As users of social media, Facebook users are typically older than the users of other social media apps (like Musical.ly, WhatsApp and Snapchat, for example). Many of the readers of The Beagle are in what we might euphemistically refer to as “an older age group”. We probably use Facebook and we almost certainly use the Internet. If we use the Internet then we probably use a browser (like Safari or Firefox). A browser is simply a window onto the Internet; it doesn’t do anything, it simply displays what is on the Internet and makes it look pretty. (This is not quite true as we will see below.) The browser enables you to use a search engine. Google is a search engine. And Google has as many problems relating to privacy protection as Facebook. Google may know as much about you as Facebook. Only this week a court in the UK decided that there exists a “right to be forgotten” in a case between someone (referred to as NT2) and Google. Google does not (or did not) believe that someone has a “right to be forgotten”.
So, what should you do about all this? And do you care?
Answering the second question is harder than answering the first. Whether you care depends upon two things; the volume and type of information about yourself that other people can know, and the use to which that information might be put. That is a call that only you can make … but if you don’t make it then someone else may make it for you.
So, what should you do about all this? I suggest that you consider three things.
Use your common sense
The first is that you need to use your common sense. Don’t write passwords down and certainly never tell anyone your password … for anything. If you don’t know who’s calling you on your phone, then hang up straightaway. If you don’t know who has sent you an e-mail, then don’t reply to it and certainly do not open (or try to open) any attachments. If you have a Windows PC, then you should have some anti-virus software (like Norton Anti-virus) installed. If you have an Apple machine, then installing anti-virus software can slow the computer down and, at worst, can stop things working.
The same common-sense rule applies to your phone; if you receive an SMS from someone you don’t know then do not respond. If someone who you do not know calls you and asks you to say anything … don’t, just hang up.
To google or not
Next … Google. I don’t use it. I prefer to use a search engine that does not track me. I use something called duckduckgo. Duckduckgo is an extension to your browser so you will need to enable it.
If you go to https://duck.co/help/desktop/adding-duckduckgo-to-your-browser and follow the instructions you will be set to go. There are instructions for Safari, Opera, Chrome and Firefox as well as Internet Explorer and Microsoft Edge. I use none of these browsers; I prefer to use Vivaldi (from https://vivaldi.com) because I can change the way it looks very easily. When you use duckduckgo you will notice that it looks slightly different but not significantly so.
Are you cooking with gas?
I mentioned cookies above. If you are concerned you can turn them off. Here’s how to do this with Safari.
Step 1: Click on “Safari” at the top left of the screen; then select “Preferences”
Step 2: when the above dialogue box appears select “Privacy” and you will see a checkbox called “Block all cookies”. Click in that box. Then click the red circle at the top left to close the box. That’s it. You’re done.
The process will be similar for other browsers. On an Apple you will always find the switch by going to the preferences (hold down the ⌘ button and while you are holding it type a comma).
Now for Facebook. You may have noticed that there is a #deletefacebook movement. This is for those who wish to have no more to do with the platform. If you decide that’s the course for you then type “how do I delete Facebook” into the search bar of your browser and go from there.
While I can understand the reasons behind wanting to delete one’s Facebook account, it may not be for you … you probably depend upon it in some way. What you should do, however, is to protect your information. Here’s how you can do that. The pictures below are for a computer or laptop, but the approach is pretty much the same on a tablet (e.g. an iPad) or a phone (e.g. an iPhone).
Step 1: On your homepage at the top on the right you will see a little grey triangle that points downwards. If you click on this triangle the drop-down menu shown in the illustration above will appear. Select “SETTINGS”
Step 2: A new screen will appear with a menu as shown above. Select “PRIVACY”
Step 3: This will show you the Privacy Settings and Tools screen. You can edit your settings here as you wish. The choices are straightforward, but they are your choices. It is not for me or The Beagle to say what is right for you.
Note that it is possible that the menus above will look slightly different to the illustrations, but they will not be significantly different. As an example, take the question in the list in step 3 that asks “Who can look you up using the e-mail address you provided?” In the illustration (which is my Facebook privacy settings) you will see that only my friends on Facebook can see my e-mail address. The default appears to be that anyone can see your e-mail address. Now, this seems an odd default as it provides very little protection.
Note that the privacy settings you choose are up to you. Privacy is a personal matter and nothing in the foregoing paragraphs constitutes a recommendation. You need to make your own mind up.