Facebook’s privacy violations continue to mount. Ever since the revelation in March that the now-defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica mined personal data from 87 million Facebook users in an attempt to sway the 2016 election in President Donald Trump’s favor, new transgressions have continued to surface. Last week, the social media platform admitted that 6.8 million user photos were leaked to third parties without our consent, and this week the New York Times reported that Facebook, which boasts more than 2.2 billion users, has been sharing our private messages with Spotify and Netflix — and even allowed Yahoo to see our friends’ feeds.
While more than half of Facebook users of all ages have changed their privacy settings this year, according to the Pew Research Center, I was curious why there hasn’t been a mass exodus from the network. Do the perceived benefits of social networking trump the benefits of preserving our personal data from corporate interests? I put that question to Woodrow Hartzog, Ph.D., a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University and author of Privacy’s Blueprint: The Battle to Control the Design of New Technologies who explained how that’s not only the wrong question, but an entirely unfair one.
“I dispute generally the notion that staying on Facebook means we don’t care about privacy,” Hartzog tells me. My question, he contends, puts the onus on the individual rather than company to safeguard the massive amounts of data their platform is easily able to cull and share for their benefit.“The idea of a particular individual being able to assess and meaningfully exert choices consistently to preserve their privacy is almost laughable,” he says, noting that even if you’re not on Facebook, you’re still vulnerable to privacy breaches because of your friends who may be chatting about you online and sharing pictures of you.
Any digital presence you maintain poses a risk to your privacy. And we don’t, of course, expect people to entirely opt out of their digital lives, which is virtually impossible in today’s world, and would rob us of the pleasures we can reap from our connectivity. That’s why Hartzog urges us to hold Facebook and other companies accountable, and rally politicians to secure us with “better rules, better design, and better data practices.” The costs of not doing so are grave.
“Privacy violations can allow our own information to be used against us in really pernicious ways,” Hartzog says. Imagine, for instance, a life insurance company gaining access to your personal emails detailing your fears about the lump you found in your breast — and then denying you coverage. Even innocuous information could be leveraged against you. “Information is power, and the more of it that other companies have, the more power that they have over us,” Hartzog says. He recalls a story of a woman who was denied her psychotherapy benefits because her insurer sleuthed through her online photos and decided she looked too happy to be getting treatment for depression.
And certain populations of people may be more vulnerable to government and corporate surveillance than others, says Hartzog, including LGBTQ individuals and minorities, as they have been historically.
But there’s a whole other reason we should fight to protect our “right to be left alone.” As Julie E. Cohen, Ph.D., a legal scholar specializing in privacy rights at Georgetown Law, put it in the Harvard Law Review: “A society that values innovation ignores privacy at its peril, for privacy also shelters the processes of play and experimentation from which innovation emerges.” If we believe we are under constant surveillance, it could ultimately squelch our creativity. And that will in turn challenge our ability to grow and innovate, even risking our ability to forge close bonds with one another because we’ll be less likely, Hartzog surmises, to freely express ourselves.
Considering all of these potential negatives, Hartzog thinks people are entirely justified in deleting their Facebook accounts. Still, he points out that there are more effective ways to make change.
Take advantage of all your privacy settings
Sometimes people aren’t aware of their privacy options, so tool around on your device and on your most-used social platforms to figure out all the ways you can protect your information. “Definitely secure your account with two-factor authentication and limit the visibility of posts,” Hartzog says.
Follow these instructions to manage your privacy on Facebook and Instagram:
On Facebook, log on and click the down-pointing arrow next to the question mark on the far upper right hand side of your screen. Select “Settings” from the drop menu. From there, select “Privacy” on the left hand side of the screen (it’s the third option under “General”), and you can dictate how public your activity is and how people can find and contact you.
On Instagram, go to the bottom of the right hand side of the screen directly under “Suggestions for you,” and click on “Privacy.” On the left hand side, under “Using Instagram,” hit “Managing Your Account,” then select “Privacy Settings & Information,” and you’ll get instructions on how to set videos and photos to private so that only your followers can see them.
Campaign for privacy
Hartzog encourages us to make privacy a civic and political issue: “When people are running for office, ask them: ‘How would you help us protect our privacy?’” Civic participation is necessary, he says, to give lawmakers the mandate they need to help us better secure our online lives.
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