A few weeks ago, my sister and I were in the midst of our bi-weekly run in Central Park when she turned to me and asked if I knew how to block Facebook's access to her personal information -- she'd been randomly getting prompted to befriend people whom she hardly knew and felt like her privacy was being invaded. I probed a bit deeper and found out that many of these "friend requests" were coming from men she had been on a date or two with and whose number she had stored in her phone. Without a whole ton of knowledge on the matter, I suggested that the friend requests were perhaps coming from Facebook scouring her phone records, finding these names and then sending the notification based on these little tidbits of data. How very big brother of them. I suggested changing her privacy settings to limit access to her personal data.
More and more these days, I'm hearing the same story. How do "they" know to send me pop up ads on the exact pair of $400 dollar shoes I desperately want, can't afford but want to forget? Or why does Facebook automatically pull up the profile of that guy I've been Facebook stalking even though we're not even friends after entering nothing but the first letter of his name? (nope, I have no personal history with this one). The amount of access we're unknowingly granting to the seemingly innocent sites we visit on a daily basis is getting more and more invasive with no end in sight. And for those of us who may not be as savvy about protecting our information, how do we shield ourselves from this invisible line we didn't even know existed?
The information we're dispensing is not just relegated to that which we consciously control. A comprehensive overview of a "secret mood manipulation" Facebook study from a few years ago was recently published. In the study, they basically changed the nature of the information that appeared on around 700,000 users' news feeds, with the intent of determining how various words would alter the moods of the reader and to prove or disprove whether "emotional contagion" is real. It was determined ethical from a regulations perspective. But is that sufficient? (If you want to geek out, here are the results of the study.)
Or what about those awesome little Buzzfeed quizzes? You know -- What city should you live in? What ice cream flavor are you? Which actress would play you in the movie version of your life? Only recently did I find out that each and every time I take one of these silly little time wasters, I'm offering over personal information that is recorded in my user history. It's bad enough when I put information in that I wouldn't mind sharing. But what about the: What's your sex number? Or my personal favorite, How big is your penis? These quizzes which I supposedly took in privacy, most likely contain information that I would prefer to keep to myself. But instead, it's apparently being collected, analyzed and stored for future use. If they're taking this much information on a site as innocuous as Buzzfeed, what are they gleaning from the rest of my search history -- like the types of articles I read, websites I scour or worse, my online dating profiles?
So what, if anything, can we do about it? As we continued our run, I posed the question to my sister: Would you prefer going back to the days where phones did nothing but text and make phone calls? Where privacy wasn't invaded each and every time you visited a website, posted on your wall or took a seemingly innocent quiz? She said yes, as a matter of fact, I would. But then I'd have too much #FOMO.