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Online Privacy: Is It Really That Bad?

Online Privacy. Is it as Bad as you Imagine?

By Deanna Shoss

My back had only been out of whack for a week and I hadn’t posted a word about it anywhere. How did Facebook already know? Right in my feed was an ad for a ‘free back pain relief lunch seminar’ in my area. “Creepy,” I thought.

“Science,” corrects Jessica Tevaga, CEO of JT Marketing. “If you’ve searched or liked anything to do with those key words–back pain, herniated disc, etc.–you’re targeted.” Indeed I had done just that. Which had me wondering, how much do “they” really know? With the big three, Facebook, Google and Amazon, systematically documenting and analyzing all of our friends, curiosities and purchases, should we be worried about our online privacy?

First, you may ask, how does it work?

To begin with, it’s not actually a person manually looking at your ‘stuff’. “Special algorithms look at your browser and search history over time and give you information that’s personalized just for you,” explains Tevaga. However, while it may be algorithms finding you, it’s still you, capturing your habits, interests and actions online.

When you visit a website, it leaves a trail of cookies on your browser.  Phones with location enabled allow advertisers to know where you are. If a website has Facebook pixels installed the website owner can see what you do on their site and what you do on Facebook after you leave their site. Adds Tevaga, “when you share your information like your phone number and email address, businesses can match your customer information to your Facebook profile.” This allows them to continue to target you on multiple platforms weeks after your initial website visit or Google search.

For some that means convenience: an ad for what you want to be served to you at the moment you are ready to buy it. For others it sounds invasive.

Is there any good news about privacy?

“Caustically, it’s all bad,” says Josh Sternberg, Tech Editor for Adweek. “Tech companies have more control over what you do, how you think, than perhaps any institution since the dawn of religion,” says Sternberg. “But you can leave the Church. You can’t leave Google.”  (Technically you can, as Nithin Coca proved in his article “How I Fully Quit Google and You Can Too,” but it’s not easy. For most of us that would be like Thoreau living on Walden Pond.)

But there is hope says Sternberg. “We’re getting smarter. Governments are recognizing that they have big challenges in front of them. They’re beginning to ask better questions. Regulation is around the corner.”

That’s backed up by fact. The EU passed the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018, calling it the most important change in data privacy regulation in 20 years.  In the US, California and Vermont have passed data regulation laws.

Even with the CEO’s of Facebook and Google appearing before Congress, it does seem that it will still be a while before we understand the repercussions and have regulations in place that make sense for business and personal concerns.

In the meantime, what can you do? Here are for four actions to help protect your online privacy.

  1. Accept that nothing online was considered private anyway.
    Assume anything you post, even anything you email, will be visible to everyone. Period. No matter how often you change your privacy settings, different platforms change them more quickly.

And, there’s no such thing as two audiences—one “public” and one for “family and friends—curate what you posted knowing there’s only one internet. In the olden days the warning in Public Relations was “don’t put anything in writing that you don’t want on the front page of the New York Times. Same adage. New media.

That friend who swore they wouldn’t repeat your secret in second grade? Now they can do a screen shot and share anything you’ve shared with them.

Nothing you post online is private

  1. Give out only information required.

Lie about your age (aren’t you doing that anyway?). No one is verifying your birthday; they just need to know you’re old enough to use the site. Give a fake zip code, too.

And don’t give more information than is absolutely required to get or do what you need. Most often a cell phone is optional, as is home address, gender and all kinds of information requested.

When you are at a retail store making a cash purchase, don’t be afraid to let the clerk know they have absolutely no need for your phone number or email address. Yes, everyone behind you in line with think you are paranoid. You are paranoid, but with supporting evidence that you should be.

  1. Avoid giving out your phone number. Create a burner email account to use just for signing up for stuff.

Sternberg warns that experts have told him your phone number is now more closely attached to your bank, finances and health insurance than even your Social Security number. He also recommends creating a burner email address (shoot…the easiest way to do this is with Google’s Gmail) to use when you are making online purchases or filling out forms. And don’t let Google force you to consolidate all of your Gmail accounts into one inbox (They will try. Say no!). Use a different password for your critical sites, like banking, than you would for other more informational sites.

Beware anytime a website says “in order to better serve you…” or “for your convenience…” before they ask for information about you. It’s never actually a benefit for you. Yes, it probably will be easier, but it is designed to gather more information about your habits.

For example, you can use your Facebook login to log into all kinds of sites now. Convenient, right? Wrong! Facebook pixels allow websites to track your behavior on their website and back on Facebook after you leave their site. Any site you sign into with your Facebook login will now track you as well. Sign in to any site you use separately, with your burner email address and a different password. Can’t remember your passwords? No worries. That’s what the “Forgot Password” function is for.

And (duh?) Don’t get microchipped!

  1. If you’re on Facebook, turn off Facebook Ads

Short of deleting your Facebook page (although that is an option too) you can turn off ads and limit what advertisers can see. (Remember, Facebook owns Instagram and Google owns YouTube, so you’ll want to check into this for other platforms where you have a profile as well.)

But one step at a time. Here’s how to turn off Facebook Ads and delete the “preference” profile that Facebook has created about you.

  1. Log into your Facebook Page (these directions are for a laptop or computer).
  2. Click the little down arrow (inverted triangle) in the top upper right corner; Three-quarters of the way down, click on Settings.
  3. Once you are in, look at the left hand column. Click on Ads, near the bottom of the list. (Note that Privacy is at the top of that list—take a look there to make sure your posts are set “Friends only” as opposed to “public”, while you’re at it.)
  4. Click on Ad Preferences (fourth item down), and change “allowed” to “not allowed” for all options.

Plan to spend some time here, as you freak out, looking at the other sections on this page–Your interests; your preferences; Advertisers with whom you’ve interacted. It’s amazing how much accumulates to build a profile.

 This list doesn’t even scratch the surface, and by the time this is published, advertisers may have already found a new way to track you. But it’s a start.

What’s the real risk?

My son the teenager swears it’s a generational issue. He asserts neither he nor his peers care. “Only (ageist adjective inserted) people who grew up with privacy think lack of privacy is dangerous. Until you can tell me why it’s bad, I don’t see it as bad. “And on that last part, he’s not wrong. Even people in the know can’t say why it’s inherently wrong.

On the other hand, when I recently went in to turn off Facebook Ads, I found that Facebook had me pegged as a liberal Boomer business owner interested in multiculturalism who frequents cafes, likes international travel and is in the market for a new phone. Well, they don’t know everything. I got my new phone last week!

For me, when considering something so colassal, two phrases come to mind: “if you haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to fear,” and “Don’t worry. We’re from the government. We’re here to help you.”

Along those lines, I leave you with the Chinese government’s ambitious “social credit system,” launched in 2012 with plans for full implementation by 2020. This is a real thing, not a science fiction movie. According to Business Insider, “the system allows the government to rate citizens on a range of behaviors from shopping habits to online speech,” in order to “manufacture a problem-free society.” So far citizens have reported being prevented from buying airline tickets, staying at certain hotels and the like, because of their non-negotiable, government algorithm derived social score.


artificial IntelligenceDeanna Shoss is a marketer, writer, interculturalist in Chicago. As President and CEO of Intercultural Talk, Inc. she provides digital, intercultural and real life marketing for entrepreneurs and people following their passions post age 50, who need strategy and know-how to adapt to new communication technologies. She speaks Portuguese, Spanish and French and is a certified Body Pump and group fitness instructor.

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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