Social media: How to get (a little) less tracked

October 29th, 2019
Social Media

The more social media platforms know about you, the more money you’re worth to them – and to their advertisers. We all know we’re being tracked, but we’re often still surprised just how much these companies know, and how much personal information they’re capturing as we live our lives. Without abandoning social media – or moving into a cave – we can’t fully escape their grip. But we can somewhat reduce tracking and regain at least some control.

In general, you’re better off logging out of social media platforms when you’re not using them – and don’t choose to use social media login systems from Facebook or Google on other sites if you don’t have to. Whenever you’re logged in, you’re easier to track, even if you’re not actually using Facebook or Google at the time. They may attempt to track you even if you’re logged out, but might at least have trouble linking your behavior to your name – especially if you use a privacy-focused browser like Duck Duck Go or Firefox set to block cookies, trackers, and fingerprinters. In a perfect world, you might also prefer using messaging accounts that aren’t linked to social media platforms, so it’s more convenient to stay logged off -- but as millions of Gmail users will tell you, that’s not always easy.

Take a look at what they know

To motivate you to strengthen your privacy settings, see what these platforms admit knowing about you. For example, on Facebook, choose Settings and go to Your Facebook Information. Here, you can browse or download your history – all your posts, likes, shares, searches, and so forth – as well as information about your interactions with advertisers. (The section “Advertisers Who Uploaded a Contact List with Your Information” may show plenty of companies you never heard of.) As for Google: click the circle on the top right (it might show your photo or initials). Next, click Google Account, choose Data & Personalization, choose Download Your Data, and follow the instructions there. (It may take time for Google and Facebook to build these downloaded files. They have to assemble a lot of data.)

Limiting Facebook’s data

Now let’s get to work tightening things up. Let’s start with Facebook.

Within Settings, consider turning off Location so Facebook can’t track patterns as you move around in the physical world. So, too, turn off Face Recognition, so Facebook doesn’t try to identify and tag you in any photo posted by any of its 1.4 billion users. Consider refusing to give Facebook a mobile phone number that it will use for ad targeting. In Apps and Websites, turn off Apps, Websites, and Games to prevent Facebook from sharing your data with third-party apps. (Among other things, that’ll disable the aforementioned “Log in with Facebook” buttons we discussed earlier.)

Facebook promised in May 2018 that it would soon let you control whether Facebook connects what it learns about you from other websites to your personal profile. Most of the planet is still waiting for that feature… but presumably not forever. When it arrives, it’ll be called “Off-Facebook Activity,” and you’ll be able to find it in Settings, too. As with many privacy settings, it won’t stop data collection, just prevent the data from being linked directly to you. The truth is, though, that’s no panacea: marketers can still do plenty to target you without knowing your name. But it’s something.

Keep Google, Twitter, and more from knowing too much

Next, Google. In Google Account’s Activity Controls, you can instruct Google to stop storing records of your searches, Chrome history, media recordings, locations where you’ve taken your Android devices, and YouTube search and watch histories. In Google’s recently introduced MyActivity, you can also instruct Google to regularly erase activity like Maps destinations and Google Assistant voice requests without being asked.

Let’s take a quick look at some other platforms. While you have some control over how Twitter personalizes advertising and content directed at you, you have relatively little control over what data it collects. In Settings, Personalization, and Data, you can instruct Twitter not to share your interests or content you’ve viewed with certain business partners for advertising and brand marketing. (While you’re in Settings, you might take a look at Interests & Ads data to see what Twitter thinks you care about. It might be disconcerting! You can adjust their list. But that doesn’t change their data collection: it merely helps them refine their ad targeting.)

LinkedIn doesn’t give you much control over data collection, but you can make a few tweaks. In Settings & Privacy, go to the Account tab and consider disabling data sharing with third-party “Permitted Services.” In the Privacy tab, consider removing salary data, clearing search history, and placing your data off-limits to outside Social, Economic, and Workplace Research. On the Ads tab, you might want to disable Insights on Websites You Visited, Interactions with Businesses, and Ad-Related Actions.

We’ve just scratched the surface – and as you can tell, even if you work hard to restrict data collection, these platforms are still capturing a whole lot of information about you. Eventually, it seems likely we’ll get at least a little more help from laws and regulations – and we can use all the help we can get.

And of course, while it’s on us as individual users to monitor how our social media accounts are monitoring us, having the right security on our home PCs and Macs can help keep other dangers at bay. Before surfing the web, be sure a solid security solution like Sophos Home has your back. Everyone out there wants our information, so it’s up to us to have a care at every step along the way.

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