I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but companies like Google and Facebook know a lot more about you than they let on. I certainly don’t want to cause a panic, but I do think that people ought to know what they’re really signing up for when they use services provided by these companies.
The prevailing thought about these web sites is that they only know what you tell them. It would really be nice if that were true. Unfortunately, it is not. Let’s start with Facebook.
It used to be that Facebook could pretty much only record what you are doing on their site. They only had information on you that you gave to them (or they could collect about you from your friends). Those days are long gone. They have access to SO much more.
We all know that Facebook has the ability to build an absolutely enormous social graph of us. It has more information than even our closest friends and family do about our past, who we know, where we’ve been and what we were doing when we were there, etc. It’s pretty amazing that a site with so much personal information has become so popular, and that we continue to give it information. But it goes way beyond what most of us are aware of.
You know that little “Like” button that shows up all over the web? Yeah, the one you see on the right. Seems innocuous enough, right? Well, that little tiny tag gives Facebook access to a wealth of information. Every web site that has that (or any Facebook-provided content) knows you’ve been to that page. The very act of putting the Like button on a page grants Facebook access to the information that you’ve been there. And nobody knows what they’re doing with that information. Since this button has been installed on a ton of very popular web sites, it’s pretty easy for Facebook to be able to build a profile of most every web site you’ve been to. Not that this in and of itself is necessarily a scary thing, but it does have the potential to be scary. When combined with other information on your profile, it would be pretty easy to build a dossier on you. Worst case scenario, they sell that information to advertisers, or their site gets hacked and your personal surfing habits get into the hands of someone with less than pure intentions. With the huge breach that Sony experienced last month, these things are not outside the realm of possible reality.
Is there a way to prevent this? Yes. If you sign out of Facebook before visiting other web pages, and use the Private browsing mode of your web browser (InPrivate in IE, Incognito in Chrome, etc.) there isn’t a way for Facebook to be able to follow you around. Just be careful not to sign in again without doing it in the private browsing mode.
And just so you know… “deleting” information from the Facebook site doesn’t actually delete it from their databases. It just turns it off so that they don’t show it to others. But they don’t actually ever remove anything on anyone. They’ve still got it filed away.
If anybody on the internet knows more about your surfing habits than Facebook, it’s Google. Their advertising network extends to an absolutely massive number of web sites. And every site that contains ads provided by Google is also tracked. They hold onto an overwhelming majority of the online advertising market, and the odds are in their favor that any particular web site you visit has advertisements served by Google. Chances are that Google knows every web site you ever visit.
Combine this with Google wanting to get into other aspects of your life… providing the operating system for your cell phone or tablet, Internet service to your home, keeping your Health information, maps for driving directions, etc. on top of virtually every web site you visit and every Internet search you perform (this would include anything you shop for online), they have access to a lot more data than anyone could ever imagine. It has the potential to be very scary, and a huge mess if that data were to get out.
For the most part I don’t care if the web sites I visit are known to the world. But there are a few exceptions… If I were to get sick, and use the Internet to search for treatment or cures, I wouldn’t want the whole world to know what I’ve got. Or if I had children, I wouldn’t want total strangers to know where they live or go to school. It isn’t that we necessarily have to worry about what we’re doing, but who knows what we’re doing.
I’m not trying to say that the sky is falling here or anything like that. I just want everyone to at least be aware of what information these companies have access to. It goes way beyond what they appear to know at first glance. They’ve got connections with literally millions of web sites, and together they all collect a lot more information on you that you could possibly dream of.
If nothing else, I’d advise caution. Use the Private mode of your browser more, or maybe even all of the time. Use different browsers for different web sites. Sign out of web sites when you aren’t actually using them. And above all, be careful in what information you’re willing to share with them.