Master Your Privacy Settings in 2019
Over the past 10 years, Facebook and other social media platforms have gained more prominence in our lives. These tools have helped foster deep connections, topple dictatorships, and helped influence elections for better or worse. During 2018, Facebook had a number of sensational headlines from being leveraged for misinformation campaigns to data breaches and more. Many have questioned whether Facebook is too big or has too much power. Others have vowed to #DeleteFacebook on the premise that the social media giant is not doing enough to safeguard users and their data. So why do people still use this platform? The answer is very complex and probably too hard to unpack here, but the reality is that for many people the answer is, meh.
In the spirit of transparency, I have a Facebook account and over the past year I have dramatically slowed my use of the social network, but I just cannot bring myself to delete my profile. Instead, I have opted to engage in a number of privacy checkups to better understand what information Facebook has gathered about me and how they might be using it; in this way, I can manage the information they collect and at least have some sense of ownership in how it is being used.
To some, the fact that Facebook collects and uses our information for their own marketing purposes is not news. It is the core of its business model and we are providing the data in exchange for an engaging and user-friendly platform. Some might even argue that it doesn't matter because they have nothing to hide. As social workers, we should care about how our information is being used and, more importantly, we need to better understand what privacy looks like online and the tools we can leverage to manage it. Privacy is not about hiding information, but about maintaining boundaries. It is about exercising our ability to control our information and who sees what online. Given the recently revised NASW Code of Ethics, it is important that we take some time to truly become masters of our own privacy settings.
Bear in mind, though, that social media companies are constantly changing their platforms and, a year from now, the parameters could be very different. Additionally, this article is not meant to increase your anxiety about social media or give organizations the license to shut them all down because of privacy problems. Instead, we need to have meaningful conversations about privacy and more importantly to be able to use these tools in ways that will increase our own digital literacies, so we can continue to promote the social good.
Understanding privacy settings should not be overwhelming, but sometimes it can be hard to know where to look. Facebook has tried to streamline the process by providing users with a simplified interface. Once you are logged into Facebook you can review your privacy settings by going to www.Facebook.com/privacy. There you will find categories related to your privacy settings, account security, ad preferences, your Facebook information, safety, and its legal disclosures and policies. The main categories to look at include "Your Privacy Settings" and "Your Facebook Information." The privacy settings allow you to manage who will see what you share on Facebook and you can turn on or off your location preferences. The Facebook app on your phone will store geographic locations from where you log into Facebook or where you may have checked in at a particular location. You can also manage the preferences related to facial recognition, unless you really enjoy having Facebook find you photos that are posted to its platform. You can also click through these privacy settings to control how people find you on Facebook via search, and how they might be able to contact you via Facebook or the contact information you have shared with the social network.
By this point you might be thinking, "Wow, Facebook could potentially have a ton of information about me," and if you are a frequent user of the social network, you would be right. If you want to know what information Facebook has collected about you, then you can download a copy of all the information Facebook stores about you by going to www.Facebook.com/settings and clicking on "Your Facebook Information." It may take few minutes to access the archive of your information depending upon how long you have been a Facebook user and how often you use it, but you will receive a notification when your file is ready for download. This will be a ZIP file that you should download to your computer. Once you have done that you will be able to browse through the various folders within that archive by clicking on and opening each one.
The type of files and information depends upon how you use Facebook. As an example, I will share with you a bit of what I found in my archive. I discovered messages from when I had first joined the social network more than 10 years ago. I also had files with photos and videos of random bits of humor, photos of my children, and other friends I had shared, and even a few documents I shared with some colleagues. I discovered most of the contacts in my phone were also on Facebook because I must have given Facebook access to my contacts on my phone at some point over the years. There was even a log of the status updates I had given and all the times I had logged into the social network with an associating Internet Protocol address, internet browser type, and whether it was on a computer or smartphone/tablet. This is the part where some of you might be thinking this is Big Brother-like and perhaps it is time to delete the account. That is fine, and if you want to delete your Facebook account and all the data, you can do so from the privacy settings page.
Some of you might not have a Facebook account but maybe you have been using GoogleDocs, Gmail, Maps, or any other host of services from Google. There is also a way to download a copy of the data kept by Google to better understand what Google knows about you and how to manage that information. It all starts by being logged into your Google account and going to https://takeout.google.com/settings/takeout, where you can select the Google products to include in your archive. Next you will choose the file format, where you want to save the download, and the size of the file. It's probably best to use a .ZIP file and choose a large size, such as 50 GB, to avoid having your download split into multiple files. Google gives a warning message here about downloads that are larger than 2 GB being compressed into a zip64 file format, which some older computers might not be able to open. Be sure to check your computer or set aside enough time to download multiple smaller files. Finally, you will indicate the delivery method of the download link and click on create archive. I recommend choosing e-mail, since this file could take some time to create. In my case, it took several days to create the file.
Once you receive the link, you can download a copy of your data and click through the files to see what Google knows about you. It can be pretty eye-opening if you are like me and use Gmail, Google Maps, Drive, and many of the company's other services. They store information about where you travel and what locations you have searched for via Maps, comments made on YouTube videos, all of your Gmail files, and so much more. Again, this is not meant to scare you off or raise your anxiety about technology; instead, it is about technological competence and recognizing that we have probably taken for granted the innovations that big tech companies have produced over the years. A lackadaisical attitude can be problematic, as seen by the increase in news stories about the perils of social media, screen time, or other technology. However, I want to reemphasize that this activity is an important step in one's overall digital literacies development and becoming a master of your privacy settings.
As social workers, we care about modeling appropriate behaviors. Many human service organizations use Facebook and other social media platforms to help promote their organizations or services and we can help our clients understand social media outlets and how to use them in an appropriate way. Setting boundaries, educating about the benefits and challenges to social media, talking about privacy, and raising our levels of technological competence will ensure that we are using this transformative technology for good. More and more tech companies are realizing the importance of user privacy and healthy engagement. As social workers, our unique perspective and professional values can help others understand that technology will continue to influence our world and that we can be ready to intervene in ways that will continue to empower, educate, and strengthen others.
— Jimmy A. Young, PhD, MSW, MPA, is an assistant professor in the department of social work at California State University San Marcos.