Mom always said to share, but Facebook has us thinking twice. Here, how to regain command of your digital privacy from social media sites to dangers lurking in your own smartphone
Illustration: DAN PAGE
By Steven Melendez April 26, 2018 10:45 a.m. ET
SOCIAL MEDIA was supposed to be a fun, lively place to connect with high-school flings, share photos, brag humbly and get in occasional spats over “Star Wars” sequels. But recent revelations about the ways political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica trawled through Facebook
FB +1.17% data have made people realize they’ve shared much more than just cat memes online.
A recent HarrisX poll found that 46% of Americans surveyed don’t believe Facebook protects their personal information, often more than twice that of rivals Twitter , Google, LinkedIn and Snapchat—another 25% were “uncertain.” While most people favor stricter regulations than ever around data privacy, years of studies by groups like the Pew Research Center have found that users are specifically concerned about who had access to the online information they share.
“It’s not so much the old definition of privacy—’I want the right to be left alone,'” said Lee Rainie, director of internet and tech research at Pew, who sums up the new goal as “I want to control the world’s understanding of who I am.”
‘A HarrisX poll found that 46% of Americans surveyed don’t believe Facebook protects their personal information.’
Gaining that control in 2018 can seem an eminently daunting task, but you can take certain steps to protect your privacy from digital crooks, creepy advertisers and unsavory programs.
First, don’t fall behind on those security updates your computer and phone seem to constantly bug you about. Also, try not to reuse passwords from site to site, and set up all of your social and messaging accounts with two-factor authentication, a system by which apps and sites text a verification code to your phone when you log in from new devices, which you then enter to confirm it’s truly you. It’s designed to thwart hackers who may have stolen or guessed your insufficiently ingenious password since they won’t be able to see the code.
For added security, you can also set up a virtual private network (VPN), which routes your internet traffic through an extra layer of encryption. Once it’s activated, you can browse the web more freely, as hackers will have a difficult time spying on you. VPNs can be especially valuable if you frequently use public Wi-Fi in places like airports and coffee shops. TunnelBear offers an easy-to-install VPN that works across devices (free, upgrades from $4.99 per month, tunnelbear.com). But be diligent: A VPN doesn’t protect you from sites you intentionally access and not all VPN services have your best interest in mind.
Facebook’s data privacy scandal has driven many to contemplate ditching the social network for good. WSJ’s Katherine Bindley explains how, and suggests some non-permanent alternatives. Photo illustration: iStock
Facebook recently stated it would soon prompt users to review their privacy settings upon login, but, as with most social websites and apps, you can generally evaluate your options any time through the settings menu. But remember: Platforms evolve and new features are rolled out with default privacy settings you might want to change—like whether the platform can use face recognition to find you in photos. It’s smart to periodically check for unsavory surprises that let third parties access your info more easily, said Mary Madden, a research lead at the Data & Society Research Institute.
You might also want to check the “Apps and Websites” tab in your Facebook settings to ensure no third-parties have access to more data than you care for—does that farming game that mom bullied you into joining still need access to your friends list? While you’re at it, you can go into the settings menu on your smartphone to see if your iOS or Android apps are running with permissions they don’t need—like access to your location, your photos or your microphone, either to target you with ads or for more nefarious purposes like stealing data. Your flashlight app might be handy when you drop your keys between cinema seats but not if it’s infected with malware that can read your texts, as was the case with at least three not-so-bright apps last year. A simple, smart option is uninstalling apps you no longer use or need.
For some communications, you might also consider replacing traditional texting tools with ones that offer end-to-end encryption of your messages, meaning only the sender and recipient should be able to read them. Hackers, rogue employees at tech companies and even government spies will be largely kept at bay. Signal is a popular texting tool with security experts (signal.org), Facebook-owned WhatsApp now offers end-to-end encryption (whatsapp.com) and there’s even a “secret conversation” mode now built into Facebook’s Messenger app.
Meanwhile, if you’ve ever looked at buying something online and then noticed ads for said thing following you all over the internet, there’s software to limit what companies can see. A free plugin called Ghostery (ghostery.com) works with most devices to highlight and filter tracking tools. Another free tool named Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org) automatically spots and blocks the sneaky code that helps ad firms track you from site to site.
Once protected, you may consider erasing embarrassing posts and tweets. Services like Scrubber, a Denver-based company, can automatically search old posts for vulgarity, drug and alcohol references or select keywords. Searching is free, and those with haunted pasts can commandeer a tool to help delete posts for $19 per month (scrubber.social). Just be careful who you trust with that level of access to your accounts and be wary of anyone asking for login credentials.
In 2018 people use Facebook for many reasons: for work, for managing events like children’s sports games or just to stay in touch with far-flung friends and relatives. With all that at stake, think about updating your privacy settings, installing some security software and maybe taking down those angry posts about the 2012 Super Bowl.
Appeared in the Wall Street Journal April 28, 2018, print edition as ‘Like Control?.’