Renovate Your Social Media Profile
When you socialise on social media, you create and share a lot of very personal digital information in the process – perhaps more than you intended.
Not only that, but when you swipe right on dating apps or share a post, your activity is being analysed by tech companies or data brokers to give them a better sense of who you are – usually so they can serve you more personalised ads and content.
It’s one thing to get a Facebook ad for those shoes you were just looking at online, but there are lots of other ways in which your browsing habits, social media activity and other information is used that may affect you in real life.
They might know things about you that you wouldn’t even tell your best friends or family members, or be drawing conclusions about you that you never agreed or consented to.
How Well Does Your Social Media Know You?
To get a sense of how much your social media account already knows about you – whether you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, all of them or even more – choose the account you use most, log in and follow these steps to find out more about what they know about you. (You can also try them in any other social media account you have if the feature is available):
- Settings →
- Ads →
- Ad Preferences →
- Your Interests →
- See all your interests
- Settings →
- Ads →
- Ad Activity
Do any of the results surprise you? What conclusions might someone else draw about you based off this information alone? While we can view these features on select platforms, quite often we don’t know it’s happening and have no control over the profiles we are given or the groups we are put into.
Behind the Scenes of Your Social Media Profile
Click on any part of the social media profile below to reveal more information.
Do you use the same profile picture across various accounts online? Reverse image searches like TinEye or Google Image Search (1) can help people easily connect the dots about the services you use.
Are you the same Alex that’s been emailing Sara? The same Alex that’s listed in Mariam’s phone contacts list? The Alex who’s entire work history is found on LinkedIn? Combining information that is easily found through your data traces online can give a clear picture as to who you are, where you work, who you’re related to and who else you associate with.
You like a picture of a family that is holding hands and walking through a park – seems pretty harmless, right? Well for specialists, this is gold.
They may rate you highly in openness and agreeableness on the OCEAN model (2), indicating that you’re more easily swayed by positively-focused political ads. As a result, you might wind up with several photos of smiling families in your feed, trying to gain your vote for one politician or another.
Use lots of “!!!”? Write “always” and “never” more than “maybe”? According to one app’s algorithms (3), you show signs of overconfidence and wouldn’t qualify for a safe driving discount.
In one 2016 example, the UK-based car insurer Admiral worked on an app for first-time car owners that would predict their driving style from their Facebook posts. (In the end this particular app was scrapped just hours before launch.)
Still, scoring systems based on your social media activity are being experimented with in a variety of areas, including banking, policing, immigration and insurance.
If you live in the EU and you believe you've been affected negatively by computer automated data processing, you have the right to ask for a real person to get involved, review the materials, and come to a decision. This may relate to a loan through your bank, a job application status or a health care application, to name a few. You can learn more about this on the European Commission website linked below (4).
More data means, in theory, a more accurate profile, and data can be gained from all kinds of places – including sources that have previously been beyond the reach of the big technology companies.
In 2016 it came to light that in an agreement with a UK National Health Service trust, Google-owned artificial intelligence company DeepMind was given access to the healthcare records (5) of 1.6 million patients from three London hospitals.
The immediate aim was to develop an app related to kidney failure – but what are the long-term implications of this kind of data-sharing? What agreements have been made by the healthcare facilities you’ve visited? Do you want your personal medical information to be used for reasons other than for your health?
While using a loyalty card at a shop can give you exclusive discounts and offers, it can also help the shop to connect dots about who you are and predict what you might want to purchase in the future.
In 2012, Target’s algorithms found out about a teenager’s pregnancy before she had the chance to tell her dad (6). Coupons for baby supplies sent to her home tipped off her dad, and the truth was revealed.
1. TinEye, Google Image Search 2. The OCEAN model 3. "Admiral to price car insurance based on Facebook posts" 4. "Can I be subject to automated individual decision-making, including profiling?" 5. "Google DeepMind patient data deal with UK health service illegal, watchdog says" 6. "How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did"
After gaining new insights into why companies collect your data and what kind of thing they use it for, it’s normal to feel concerned – but hopefully you can use that concern to motivate you to take action where possible.
What You Can Do
1. Get off the app and onto the browser
Sometimes, the services we use overstay their welcome. While some social media platforms are only available as an app (e.g. Instagram), others can be accessed through your browser. (To increase privacy controls on your browser, check out this article.)
The Facebook App, for example, has permissions to access your contacts, location, camera, storage, texts, calls and more. So if you want to log on to your Facebook account on your phone, uninstall the app and use your browser instead. Also, be sure to log out of Facebook anytime you aren’t using it to help prevent further tracking.
2. Update your ad preferences
You can also help restrict the flow of some of your data to social media by updating your ad preferences.
To update your ad preferences on Facebook, go back to Ad Preferences → Ad Settings →
- Ads based on data from partners → Continue → Not allowed → Save
- Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere → No
- Ads that include your social actions → No one
On Facebook, you can access some of your activity by following the steps in this link, or search for “Accessing and Downloading Your Facebook Information,” but you can also ask to see more. If you live in the EU, you have the right to see all the information that companies have about you. Check out this link to learn more.
While it’s not clear whether updating your ad preferences concretely makes a difference behind the scenes, following these steps nevertheless communicates your preferences with Facebook.
3. Reduce publicly available data
Now let’s make sure you’re not unknowingly sharing things with the general public.
- On your computer, log into Facebook and go to Settings → Privacy.
- Select Friends for Who can see your future posts?
- Select Friends for Who can look you up using the email address/phone number you provided?
- Select No for Do you want search engines outside of Facebook to link to your Profile?
- Now go to Settings → Timeline and Tagging
- Select Only Me or Friends for Who can see posts you’ve been tagged in on your timeline? and for Who can see what others post on your timeline?
- On the app, go to Settings → Privacy and Security → Account Privacy → next to Private Account, tap the toggle → in the pop up, tap OK to confirm.
Note: making your profile private does not shield your information from the platform itself (that is to say, if your Instagram profile is private, you’re still uploading to Instagram, so Instagram still has access to your photos).
4. Declutter your accounts
Sharing posts, writing comments and tagging photos can be a nice way to keep in touch with friends and family. But do you really want to be judged on posts you made five years ago?
The fact is, we never really know where our photos and posts will end up. A lot of the time, we never really knew who could see them in the first place – especially when it comes to other people’s photos or posts we’ve commented on or been tagged in, or vice versa.
With this in mind, your social media account could probably do with a good clean.
- From the drop-down menu in the top right corner, select Activity Log. Scroll down through all your activities and choose a few items to delete (click the pencil icon on the post itself). Pick things that you wouldn’t miss anyway and set your own goal: 5 photos, 10 comments, 15 posts – how many can you live without? Great; now add 4 more to that number and get going!
- Un-tag yourself in all those pictures you wouldn’t miss. Once you’re done, un-tag yourself in some more.
- You may find that your deep-clean is so satisfying that you don’t want to stop. But when you do, commit yourself to removing more posts or photos over the next few weeks.
- On your profile page, tap on the icon to see photo’s you’ve been tagged in. Start with a picture you wouldn’t miss.
- Tap once to view the image → tap once on the image to view the tag(s) → find your name tag and long tap on it → in the pop-up select either Hide or Remove
Note: deleting or untagging is not a guarantee that the previously stored information will be erased from the service’s servers.
5. Separate your accounts
When signing up for a new app or service, oftentimes we are given the options of either making a new account manually, or connecting via Facebook, Instagram or Google in a single click. While the latter sounds enticing, connecting your profiles across the web actually makes it easier for tech giants to follow your activities.
Let’s say you sign up for a dating app, and connect your account through Facebook. Not only will the dating app gain access to your Facebook history, but Facebook will also gain access to your dating data.
Connecting accounts might also out your secrets to family or friends without your knowledge.
You might find that your Facebook friends are recommended to you in your dating app, which means not only can you see who you know that is searching for romance … your friends and family on the app can see that you’re on there, too!
Try to separate the different parts of your life by setting up your accounts manually.
6. Pass it on
Have you contributed to your friends’ data build-up by tagging them in photos and posts in the past?
Lighten their data load (and your social conscience in the process) by un-tagging them in as many photos and posts as you can.
Note: Behind the scenes, Facebook and Google may still identify faces and track identities to connect the dots of our social webs. The best thing to do going forward is not post pictures of other people onto these platforms, or share photos in private group chats only. (Try the private chat apps Signal or Wire.)
It’s not just your information that’s collected. Analysts connect the dots on sets of data to create profiles of the people you know as well – whether they’re on Facebook or not. It’s important that we encourage our friends, family, and co-workers to join us in controlling fly-away data. If we all work together to control our data traces, we can better protect the most vulnerable members of our community.
If you want to delete your social media accounts altogether, check out this article for instructions.
Congratulations! You’ve made a solid step towards keeping your unruly social media data under control. If you liked that, why not Give Your Device a Fresh Start.