After returning from a party at a friend’s house, Betty grabs her phone and updates her status on Facebook, and then uploads a few images of herself and friends from the party. After a few minutes, the post has already received more than 100 likes and 50 comments from friends, acquaintances, and complete stranger! Betty is ecstatic. She is a social phenomenon. She loves Facebook, Google, and every other Internet giant that helps make her life seem so fantastic!
However, little does she realize that at the other end of this relationship is a digital giant that is recording and accumulating every scrap of data about her. This seems rather innocuous at the time, particularly in her fuzzy, party-thrilled mind, but it actually has the potential of completely turning her life around.
Dependence on Technology
This is probably the biggest problem with the current generation. We can hardly imagine our lives without our iPhones, iPads, and other technological gadgets. In fact, for some people, even a few minutes of separation from their technological gizmos feels like torture!
Thanks to this extraordinary dependence on technology, we invariably end up feeding the Internet monster with most of our personal information. In our minds, we think, ‘I’m just sharing a picture of my friends on Instagram. How can that possibly compromise the confidentiality of my personal life?’
Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it can. In a major way.
Terms and Conditions: Where All the Loopholes Are Hiding
When signing up for any online service, such as Gmail or Facebook, there is a checkbox we almost all ignore: ‘By clicking OK, you confirm that you have read our Terms and Conditions.” Now, I can’t say for sure, but I would assumed that most people ignore those long and complex Terms and Conditions. I, for one, certainly do. We’re living in a fast-paced world, after all. We simply tick the box and move on. No big deal, right?
What we don’t realize, however, is how much of our data is being scanned and stored by these service providers. You may draw back in shock, but there is nothing illegal in what they’re doing; you permitted those companies to use and store your data, after all, by clicking on the seemingly harmless box of the Terms and Conditions.
What Data Can They Access?
Google: Google is not the only Internet titan that holds a lot of information about you; there are plenty of others. Microsoft, Yahoo, and any other service you use has access to parts of your personality, but given the wide reach of Google and its services, we’ll talk about Google here.
In April 2014, Google confirmed what many people had already assumed – that it goes through your personal content to provide you with ‘tailored’ search results. Here is what that announcement said:
“Our automated systems analyze your content (including e-mails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”
Basically, this means that Google is reading your personal emails, even the ones that might contain sensitive information that you wouldn’t want anyone, except the intended recipient, to see. This type of deep user content analysis allows Google to provide hand-picked search results for users when they type any term in the Google search box, but many people would flatly refuse such customized results if it meant compromising their personal information.
In the past, Google has taken a lot of criticism for some of its hyper-cool services, such as street view in Google maps, Google Safari, and Android on phones, all of which seemed to spy on the personal data of users.
When downloading an app from the Google Play Store, users are asked for permission to grant access to a bunch of important stuff on their phone. However, there are only a handful of people who actually look at the level of access those apps request. For example, look at the access areas for apps like TrueCaller or Amazon. You might be horrified when you realize how much access you have casually given the company.
This doesn’t mean that Google is misusing such information, but there are still things that you simply wouldn’t want anyone else to know, even if Google promised to keep those things safe and private.
There should be an option for Google where a user can pay to use Google services in return for a completely private account. DuckDuckGo is one such search engine that emphasizes the protection of searchers’ privacy and avoids personalized search results.
Facebook: This is undoubtedly the lead actor in today’s social media world. It would be no exaggeration to say that Facebook basically controls other social media platforms too; you would have a hard time finding a person who doesn’t have a Facebook account, but has social media accounts with other services. The amount of personal data the Facebook gathers about its users is simply…creepy. Yes, creepy is definitely the right word.
Back in 2010, a man named Schrems, age 26, sent an email to Facebook asking for all the information it had related to his own account. Quite surprisingly, he got a response!
Facebook (this is hard to believe) sent a PDF file of no less than 1200 pages that basically contained every detail of his life. It contained his messages (yes, even the deleted ones), all of his photos, the IP addresses of the computers he had used to log in, the type of devices he used to log in, the details of the people who had poked him and those he had poked, and even his last location (which he never specified on Facebook!). Facebook had a complete breakdown of his likes and dislikes, his hobbies, the places he had visited, and even an assumed list of his best pals (from his chat history and conversations).
Seriously, people, how much spookier can it get?
At this point, I seriously think that these companies could make an exact replica of a person if they wanted. Imagine that they actually did it… Suppose they picked a person and fed him with all the information they had about you. Then, somehow, they managed to put him in your place. With everything you’ve told them about yourself, they probably could.
Scared you, right?
The Future of ‘Social Surveillance’
Fortunately, people are getting smarter by the day. We have gradually realized that Facebook and other Internet giants are prying information from our accounts. Therefore, the future of these services will become even more sophisticated. Facebook intends to launch various products and services that will pry even deeper into the lives users, only they won’t use the name ‘Facebook’. Yes, Facebook will continue to gather information about you, only you won’t even realize that it’s happening.
This issue is not limited to Google and Facebook; there are thousands of apps and products that, in subtle ways, store your personal information. Apps like Instagram, Snapchat and countless others fall into that category, while totally innocuous free apps, such as Flashlight and CamScanner, are also alleged to store user data.
Is There Any Way Out?
That’s a good question, but the answer isn’t great…
If you don’t want any of these products to store your personal information, but you still want to enjoy their services, there is unfortunately no way out of the cycle. However, you can put a leash on the things that you post and share with your friends and relatives on these platforms.
As they say, “Real interaction is the only ‘real’ interaction”. In other words, perhaps you should log out, leave your phone at home, and just go to the beach with your friends. Trust me, disconnecting and reminding yourself what real life can feel like is an amazingly refreshing experience!