Can you imagine a world without smartphones? In this day and age, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. One of the reasons for this is how profoundly we rely on apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to name but a few. These apps connect us with friends, family or even strangers, be they across the globe or around the corner via a variety of novelty mediums.
To tap into such services, users must first sign up. The pesky asterisk deems your full name, email, date of birth as compulsory information, but also often gender, a ZIP/postal code, address, phone number and – if you are using a subscription service – bank card details. This is easily enough information to create a sketchy profile on any individual – and that is before you start using their service. When that begins, you will be, whether you realise it or not, voluntarily offering the company snippets into your day to day life, primarily intended for people you actually know.
Facebook is a prime example; as a website and app that boasts approximately 1.28bn users (as of June 2014), it has developed from an idea into a corporate giant. Of that total, 802 million people log into Facebook daily with 556m accessing Facebook via their smartphone or tablet and 189m of those being “mobile only” users. Every 60 seconds, 510 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated and 136,000 photos are uploaded.
Interestingly, however, each time you log into Facebook, share content, or publish a Tweet, the information you offer is being processed, logged and recorded. How do you think “Trending Topics” are created, or recommendations on who to follow next are so accurate? Such information reveals what users find popular (or unpopular), and – as most free apps are fuelled by advertising – offers you similar content in an attempt to urge you to part from the cash in your wallet.
The most frustrating thing about Privacy Policies however, is the level of ambiguity in how user information is processed and shared. Facebook states that: ‘While you are allowing us to use the information we receive about you, you always own all of your information.’ So far, so standard; this is what users expect from any business. However, as we read on, the policy states that information will not be shared unless they have ‘received your permission‘, ‘given you notice‘ or ‘removed your name or any other personally identifying information from [the data]‘. According to this, Facebook allows itself to use your information so long as your name is no longer attached to it, or alternately, it has informed you.
But what if it has told you and you do not wish to participate? Presumably, the only way to avert this would be to terminate your profile, and in that instance, would the information you had previously provided still be used even though you no longer use the service? Absolutely. Twitter are a bit more specific, stating,
‘your public user profile information and public Tweets are immediately delivered via SMS and our APIs to our partners and other third parties, including search engines, developers, and publishers that integrate Twitter content into their services, and institutions such as universities and public health agencies that analyze the information for trends and insights‘.
They also urge users to ‘think carefully’ about the information which they choose to make public accordingly.
‘These people may use this information for their own purposes, which may be either commercial or non-commercial in nature and may include targeted advertising or direct marketing. These third parties may be based in the U.K. or elsewhere in the world.’
That many ‘may’s in a sentence leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre. It is safe to presume that users have no real idea of where their content and personal information may end up, or for what purposes it may be being used.
So what options do social media addicts have, should they be adverse to adverts and compromising on personal information security? Aside from abandoning the internet altogether, burgeoning social network Ello may hold the answer. Dubbed as the “anti-Facebook” and still in beta-mode, the unprecedented clamour to access the website has had its creators dealing with approximately 35,000 invites to access every hour, with that number being expected to grow as word of mouth spreads. Its manifesto is punchy and immediate:
‘Your social network is owned by advertisers. Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold. We believe there is a better way.’
And whilst Ello does collect user data via Google Analytics, they state:
‘before information about you is stored on Google’s servers, [the user’s] IP address is stripped and anonymized [meaning that] to the best of [Ello’s] knowledge, this also makes what [users] do on Ello useless to Google for advertising purposes‘.
However, in the name of profitability, users can opt to pay to add features to their profiles including enhanced privacy features, according to Ello’s designer Todd Berger. That said, seeing as tech users are being constantly barraged with adverts to buy this, that and the other, they may as well purchase a cyber-shield, right?
Kayleigh Watson is a recent English and Creative Writing graduate from Birmingham City University who has had a vested passion for writing since her early years.
Having contributed content to a variety of publications that centre around subjects she is personally passionate about, including the arts and feminism, she is keen to explore how Big Data affects the day-to-day existence of tech users around the world.
(Image source: Mike Mozart)