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Controlling Your Privacy on Facebook and Google

July 2019

By now you must be very familiar with the issue: everything you do on the internet is tracked, and corporations have hundreds or thousands of bits of personal information about you. They know your name, gender, email address, phone number, birthday, location, relationship status, line of work, education, race/ethnicity, IP addresses, search history, websites visited, photos/videos/music uploaded, devices used, etc.

Not only that, but they use this information to create a profile of you, and then make inferences about you beyond the data they’ve gathered. For example, based on your income, level of education, location, and a wealth of other data, they might compare your profile with others and infer your political leanings.

Much of the time this data is sold to advertisers, who want to know as much about you as possible so they can show you relevant ads when you’re using the internet. But here’s the irony. In the 25 years I’ve been using the internet, I don’t remember a single instance when I made a purchase because I saw on ad on a webpage.

And a further irony is sometimes the ads themselves: recently the Time magazine email newsletter tried to sell me some mascara. The last time I used mascara was, like, never.

Or when I went to the New York Times website this morning, there was a big ad for Christie’s promoting expensive jewelry encrusted with gems. It’s not like, having seen this ad, I’m going to catch a plane to New York City so I can attend this auction. And both Time magazine and YouTube recently showed me ads for wedding rings. What’s up with that? What do they know that I don’t?

Irony aside, if you’re not comfortable with this so-called surveillance capitalism, the good news is that companies such as Google and Facebook are now giving you more control over the data they collect and store.

By default, Google makes a record of every web search, every YouTube search, every YouTube video you watch, literally every step you take (via the Maps app), every request you speak to Google Assistant. You can, however, control what Google collects by going to myaccount.google.com and clicking on “Data & personalization,” where you can choose to pause Google’s collecting of data in each of these areas.

That page also has a “My activity” link that lets you view all the data that Google has stored: Google searches, websites you’ve visited, YouTube videos, etc. You can delete individual items, or you can choose to have all your activity automatically deleted. Another option available is the ability to download all the information Google has related to your account. (Be forewarned: it could take hours to download.)

The Timeline feature is astonishing. It not only shows where I’ve been every moment of the day, it also shows whether I was driving, running, cycling, or walking, and shows how much time each jaunt took. Plus, it traces each route on a map.

The Data & personalization page also has a useful step-by-step guide called “Take the Privacy Checkup” that walks you through the privacy-related areas of Google and gives you the opportunity to change the settings.

Plus, that page also has a link to the Google Dashboard, which lists every Google service you use and gives an overview of the information that it has stored related to each service. I was astonished to see that I have 20 services. Finally, the Data & personalization page lets you edit the types of ads that you see based on your interests.

Facebook likewise gives you extensive controls over your personal information as well as giving you access to information they have stored. Go to www.facebook.com/settings.

The link “Your Facebook Information” brings up a menu to view your information, download it, manage it, and even delete your account. You can see absolutely everything you’ve done on Facebook: posts, comments, friends, messages, likes, etc.

The settings page also gives you extensive control over your account, such as who can see your posts and who’s allowed to post on your timeline. You can also block individual users.

Be sure to check out the Apps and Websites link. If you sometimes use your Facebook account to log into a website or app, you’re giving those companies the ability to request personal information about you from Facebook whenever they want. This page allows you to remove them or to view and update the information they can request. I’ve been using my Facebook login with Huffington Post and was astonished to see the amount of information they have access to.

In addition, the ads link gives your control over the types of ads that you see.

It’s great to see these companies becoming more transparent and giving users more control.

© 2019 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen