When I joined Facebook in 2005, it had little use beyond sharing my class schedule and cyberstalking ex-boyfriends. Since then, however, Facebook has evolved into a social media behemoth with more than 2.27 billion active users and immeasurable power to collect and spread information.
What’s become increasingly apparent is that Facebook isn’t always using that power for good. Among the vast sea of cat videos, Cardi B memes and rants by armchair activists, you’ll find the more insidious side of Facebook: improper data harvesting, fake news, election meddling, human trafficking.
Not to mention that Facebook is tracking and selling your personal information every minute of the day.
So it’s no wonder if you’ve considered joining the #deletefacebook movement and leaving the platform for good. The only problem is that the social network has become so ubiquitous that you might actually need an account, whether it’s for work or to access other online apps and tools.
What can you do? We spoke with Theresa Payton, former White House chief information officer and current chief executive of the security consulting company Fortalice Solutions, about what steps you can take to hide your identity from Facebook.
Creating A Burner Facebook Account
Your first thought might be to create a fake ― or burner ― Facebook account you can use to access the platform anonymously. Though that is a possibility, Payton has a few words of warning.
First, fake profiles have a pretty negative connotation. Users in countries such as Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and the U.S. have successfully created fake personas used to get people upset about social issues or promote hate speech. That’s one of the reasons why, according to Facebook’s terms and conditions, fake accounts aren’t allowed. If you create one, Facebook has a right to shut it down. So keep in mind that if you devote time and energy on creating a burner, you could end up losing it at any time.
However, simply restricting your privacy settings might not feel like enough. “If you feel like, from a privacy perspective, you want to go that extra step and set up a fake persona ― knowing that you’re potentially in violation of the terms and conditions ― that can be another added way to give you privacy,” Payton said.
Another thing to keep in mind is that even with a burner it’s fairly easy for Facebook to figure out who you are.
“If you start putting pictures of yourself on that account, facial recognition technology is going to out you,” she said. “If you put your real cellphone number with your fake name, the matching algorithm of your cellphone data is going to out you.” Even the device you use to access the platform leaves a digital fingerprint. “When you log in to any of these social media companies, one of the things they do is scoop up your device ID,” Payton said. “Your device ID is unique to your device, which is then, through purchasing data, traceable back to you.”
But let’s say you really take all the precautions to make your burner account completely anonymous. You use a fake address, fake cellphone number, fake photos and even go so far as to not use your smartphone and only access Facebook on an old laptop that you paid cash for. According to Payton, there are still ways you can be identified. The IP address that you log in from, the operating system you use, the make and model of your device and even your browser choice ― all of these data points are collected and correlated.
“We’re so far down the path that there’s a lot you can do to grab your privacy back, but it will never be complete.”
“Let’s say you have a fake account and you often like to surf and shop in a coffee shop,” Payton explained. “And you have a rewards program with that coffee shop that really is you. All they have to do is start correlating data between that laptop that belongs to your fake persona and the person who belongs to this loyalty program.” Bam ― outed again.
In fact, Payton said a lot of people don’t really understand how pervasive the tracking can be on each one of us. “Candidly, we’re so far down the path that there’s a lot you can do to grab your privacy back, but it will never be complete,” she said, likening the situation to trying to put toothpaste back into the tube.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. There are steps you can take to protect the data associated with your personal Facebook account without creating a separate burner account.
Don’t Give Up Unnecessary Information
Every piece of information you share on your Facebook profile is sold to marketers, no matter how insignificant it might seem. When filling out your profile, don’t share details that you don’t have to, such as your marital status, political and religious affiliations or location. Even better, use fake information. ”There’s lots of things that you can do to throw off the data matching that goes on,” Payton said. For instance, instead of using your home address, list the address of a local cafe.
Use An Alias
Though creating a full-on fake persona is against the rules, you can be strategic about what name you use for your real profile to throw off data trackers. For example, Payton suggests using a childhood nickname that allows friends to find you but won’t match up to marketing databases or purchasing information.
Get A Burner Email And Phone Number
You can easily use other types of burners to your advantage. For instance, Payton suggested creating an email account that you only use for social media. You can also set up a mobile number through a service like Google Voice or Talkatone and have it forwarded to your real cell number.
Switch Up Your Browsing Habits
Payton recommended mixing up the tools you use when surfing the web to throw off social media tracking. For example, don’t always use the same search engine ― switch to Bing or give Duck Duck Go a try once in a while. Switch among browsers, such as Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer. You can also consider using the Tor browser. “A lot of people associate it with surfing the dark web, but you can actually use the Tor browser for regular, everyday browsing for additional privacy and anonymity,” Payton said.
Install A Privacy Extension
Another added measure you can pursue is installing a privacy browser extension. Payton personally uses Ghostery and Privacy Badger, which are both free and will control ads, block invisible trackers and protect your data while browsing the internet. “In some cases, some sites won’t work at all because I have my settings up really high. It’s fascinating to see which websites are stopped dead in their tracks,” Payton said.
Use A VPN
Though it might sound like you need an engineering degree to install a virtual private network and proxy server program (say that three times fast), it’s actually pretty simple. Plus, there are low-cost and even free options.
“You can actually route your traffic so that it’s not coming to Facebook and other social media sites from your house,” Payton explained. Instead, you can make it look like you’re a user in Europe, Asia or Mexico. “They won’t be the wiser.”
Grab Your Privacy Back
Facebook’s ability to track and identify you online is eerily Orwellian. But the good news is that you’re not entirely powerless when it comes to protecting your data. Payton says she doesn’t want anyone to feel scared by these privacy concerns.
“I want them to be aware. I want them to be engaged and enraged. And I want them to be empowered ... to grab their privacy back.”