Girls looking at social media on their cell phone

What is Social Media Doing With Your Data?

2020 is the year for teleworking, distance learning, online shopping and virtual socializing. With so much time spent online, what are some issues that need to be considered? In a prior article, we discussed the importance of cybersecurity protocols for you and for your child. But that guidance was aimed at intrusions into your data or their outright theft. When online, there are more things vying for your attention, your information and your money. For example, did you really sign away the rights to your very face and likeness because you wanted to use FaceApp as a fun way to age yourself? Is TikTok really spycraft intent on cataloguing every human on the planet or launching spyware on their phones? What about those privacy and security issues on Zoom? Are those Facebook quizzes really a game or are they phishing for answers to your password security questions? Is that new love interest working abroad really falling head over heels or setting up a romance scam? Are the sponsored ads on Instagram offering up masks from established companies or pop-ups making bogus offers they have no intentions of fulfilling? Is your favorite influencer being paid to promote that product or really a fan? Is that job interview legitimate or a job scam? Consumerism during COVID-19 requires diligence. Social media is fun, provides connection to family and friends and is a source of news for many. While we believe that we are the consumers of such platforms (and in a sense we are) we are also its product. Social media monetizes its users by “selling” them to advertisers. It collects data on interests, posts and online interactions, and then uses an algorithm to sell hyper-targeted advertising on your feed. Yet social media does more with your data. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, your “likes” and interactions can be used for much more than mere marketing. As we guide our children, it is important to teach them that what they post is captured, stored and potentially available forever. Unlike the European Union and other countries, there is no “right to be forgotten” law in the United States. Finally, in many ways, social media can be a gateway to data mining, phishing, malware, botnet attacks and outright fraud.

How can you stay safer online?

Share less: Post the least about yourself, your kids, your finances and your environment. Criminals and con artists use your public profiles and messages to monitor your movements, lure you into a scam or to create targeted fake identities for themselves to con you.

Connect less: LinkedIn’s purpose is to network and connect with strangers. Depending on your settings, Twitter allows anyone to follow your feed. If you receive a connection request from a stranger, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) says that the safest thing to do is to reject the request. If you decide to accept the request, use privacy settings to limit what information is viewable to the stranger and be cautious of posting personal information to your account, including your current location and personally identifiable information.

Prune: PRC also suggests you delete, block or otherwise prune your “friends” and followers on a regular basis to control who has access to your messages and profiles.

Check settings: Set your privacy profiles to the strictest setting offered by the platform. You may be surprised to learn how many users have access to your profile and posts. Limit what you share with the platform for their data collection and marketing. Note that YouTube has a setting which will restrict what is suggested to your child as “similar” videos. Not all cartoons are for kids.

Update settings: Social networking sites change their terms of service and privacy settings. Consider subscribing to an RSS feed for (or following) Tosback, a project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to track changes in website policies (which covers some, but not all social networks). Review history: While the internet doesn’t forget, it is possible to delete posts from platforms and make them harder to find. Some platforms require a post-by-post review and deletion. Facebook recently issued a new tool that permits batch deletion by date range.

Limit access: Keep your children off of social media platforms until you can trust their decision making. Talk to them about oversharing online, about predators and cyberbullying.

Research: Check the age of the domain advertising those cute shoes or that great deal on masks and see how long they’ve been online. What are some reviews on the e-tailer? Are they delivering the product or just empty packages (with USPS tracking to prove that a shipment was made to counter your charge-back request)?

Trust but verify: Your new romance may really be working abroad with poor internet connection. However, before loaning money for an emergency, make sure the person exists someplace other than through a (possibly fake) social media presence.

For more information about this or other consumer issues, contact the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection at consumer@montgomerycountymd.gov or visit montgomerycountymd.gov/OCP.