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Facebook Knows What You're Thinking

July 2021

It gets annoying. I play a Scrabble-like game on my iPad that forces me to see an ad after every play, but one ad actually caught my attention: a toy drone that looked like it might make a nice gift for a child. I was curious about the price so clicked on the ad.

Big mistake.

The next time I went to look at my Facebook newsfeed, it was full of ads for the very same toy drone. This is how Facebook makes money. It follows people around the internet, learns about their interests, and then sells ads to companies eager to target people with those specific interests.

But it gets annoying.

Somehow Facebook learned that I'm am avid tennis player, perhaps when I shopped for tennis rackets, and often now shows me ads for the Slinger ball machine. Again, I was curious about the price, so clicked on the ad.

Big mistake. My Scrabble game began showing me ads for Slinger.

Phone and tablet apps also track you, often collecting data unrelated to an app. For example, it's not unusual for smartphone apps to track your location even though they have nothing to do with geolocation.

They sell this information to anyone willing to pay.

It gets tragic.

According to an expose in Vice, a Muslim prayer app sells users' personal data to brokers, contractors--and the military. The app tracks location, and the military is known for using location data in its drone warfare.

I was excited about the "democratization of knowledge" when I wrote my PhD dissertation about the "digitized word" back in 1984. I could see that the knowledge in libraries would come flooding out the doors and spread around the world, such that it would be available to everyone all the time.

I didn't, however, imagine that my personal information would also spill out around the world.

There oughta be a law. And increasingly, there is. The European Union and some states have taken the lead in passing legislation that protects privacy. Also, companies are becoming more sensitive to the privacy of users.

I got tired of Facebook tracking me, and fortunately, they now let you turn off that "feature." I went to the Facebook home page on my Mac, clicked on the rightmost icon at the top labeled Account, and from the dropdown menu selected Settings and Privacy.

Then I clicked on Settings, then Your Facebook Information, then Off-Facebook Activity. There it reads, "When you visit a website or use an app, these businesses or organizations can share information about your activity with us by using our business tools. We use this activity to personalize your experience, such as showing you relevant ads."

At right it gives a menu of choices, one of which is Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity. Click on that and you'll then have the opportunity to delete Facebook's record of your off-Facebook activity. In my case it listed 123 websites and apps.

Another option on that page is, aha, Manage Future Activity, which lets you "Choose whether your off-Facebook activity is saved with your account."

Here you can turn off this "feature" that lets Facebook track your activity.

As simple as that (not!).

Facebook's business is based on gathering information about you and selling ads to companies that want your attention. So understandably, Facebook is very upset about Apple's latest move to protect the privacy of those who use Apple devices. App makers are now required to to show you a message up front that says, "Allow (app name) to track your activity across other companies' apps and websites." It then gives you two choices: Ask App Not to Track or Allow.

Simple as that.

Apple is giving app makers time to build in this feature. My first app that showed this message was News Break, which had also lately shown me an ad for, yes, the Slinger ball machine. I like the app but asked it not to track me.

As of this writing, Apple has found that 94% of iPhone users are turning off tracking. The whole business model of Facebook and other companies is based on this. Imagine what will happen when Facebook adds this choice to its app. Of course, if an app maker refuses to add this to their app, Apple will no longer allow it to be in their App Store.

Google has also taken a small step toward adding more privacy to Android phones, but hasn't gone nearly as far as Apple.

There's much more you can do to protect your privacy. One option is to use the Duck Duck Go search engine (duckduckgo.com) and web browser. All your searches are anonymous and it doesn't do any tracking. You can add a Duck Duck Go extension to the Chrome browser. Or download the Duck Duck Go web browser to your smartphone or tablet. Qwant (www.qwant.com) is another search engine that respects your privacy.

I still haven't decided whether to buy the Slinger ball machine.

© 2021 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen