Privacy Problems Plague Social Media Platforms

For every convenience that the information age provides to us, although with it come lesser-known and not always acknowledged complications. Most of us understand that our personal information is valuable and must be protected from threat actors and cybercriminals looking to commit fraud by exploiting that information. But amidst the digital wilderness sits another complex creature now integral to modern life that is just as ravenous for our data – social media and the tech companies behind its largest platforms. 

Privacy problems abound in virtually every form of social media, compromising user information for the sake of the platforms’ rising revenues and corporate agendas. Understanding these issues is complex, but anyone out there who agrees to accept those infamous Terms & Conditions should understand what’s at stake when logging in and interacting. 

Social Media Data Mining 

The most widely used social media platforms are popular largely because they allow billions of users across the globe to share their interesting tidbits of their personal or business lives, connect with others, and stay dialed into whatever sort of information or interest they wish. Despite the “social” title, virtually all these platforms were created with revenue and profits as their primary agenda. And it turns out that the source for the platforms’ ongoing profits is the personal data of every user who signs up. 

Data mining involves collecting and analyzing all sorts of raw user data taken from social media interactions to show patterns and to make assumptions to predict the user’s future actions. These trends in data can then be sold or utilized for things such as targeted ads and other personalized types of marketing tactics designed to cater to user habits and interests. If you’ve wondered why Instagram ads appear in your feed after searching for a specific product, it is a direct result of data mining tactics. In addition to your browsing history, social media platforms also harvest general information like your age, profession, location, and overall habits within their digital ecosystem. 

It’s easy to quickly start feeling like a commodity when hearing terms like mining and harvest relating to your personal information. Your privacy is not much of a priority for social media companies. Sure, they don’t want to experience a significant data breach and deal with the resulting bad press or remediation efforts. But they are always happy and willing to sell any or all of your personal information to the highest bidder. 

With a lack of clearly established rules or regulations surrounding social media data mining, it’s safe to assume that your privacy is at least somewhat at stake with nearly every social media move/posting that you make. Increasing transparency in user privacy statements and cookie opt-outs seem like steps toward making data mining feel a bit more ethical. Still, actual autonomy in how your personal data is gathered or used is a long way off. 

Social Media Scandals Show Larger Privacy Issues

Despite the privacy issues it presents, data mining is somewhat understandable from a business or marketing perspective. But recent headlines highlight several social media scandals stemming from near complete disregard for user privacy. These examples seem to expose an underbelly to social media company policies and practices where privacy is thrown to the wind. 

Recently leaked audio from dozens of internal meetings shows that TikTok has been blatantly going against its public statements on sharing user data. The social media giant has said numerous times that the information the platform gathers is stored in the US rather than in China, where its parent company is located. TikTok has responded to privacy concerns and even given sworn testimony to the Senate that user data is only seen by security personnel based in the US. The leaked recordings completely contradict this and indicate that US-based TikTok employees did not have the same access to user data as do employees in China. The scope of this situation isn’t entirely clear, but it certainly appears that TikTok is being shady at best regarding user privacy and that it probably has been for years. 

Another alarming privacy issue surrounding Facebook ad-tracking shows how social media user features marketed as tools can instead pose serious privacy risks. This example involves a tracking tool installed on many hospital websites that collected sensitive patient information such as medical conditions, needed prescriptions, and appointment schedules. This data was sent to Facebook without patient knowledge, demonstrating a clear violation of privacy that is obviously far removed from what should be collected for marketing purposes. Sharing sensitive medical information like this might even violate HIPAA regulations concerning patient privacy. Spokespeople for Facebook and the hospitals involved claim the entire issue is a mix-up and that the sensitive information was not used for any specific purpose. Regardless of intent or not, this troubling situation still reaches scandal levels when it comes to personal privacy. 

What You Can Do to Increase Personal Privacy on Social Media

If you want to limit your risk of privacy leakage issues surrounding the use of social media, your best bet is to go dark and stop using the platforms outright. That is an unrealistic move for most people, as online identities are often integral to modern life. Limiting your use of social media, or at least the amount of personal information that you reveal, is certainly a step in the right direction. The less time that you spend within the platforms, the less data you potentially give up for mining. 

You should also take the time to look over the privacy settings and statements of the social media platforms that you currently use. There might be adjustments to tweak or parameters you can set to limit how much or what type of data can be shared. It’s always good to be aware of how your data is used, even if you can’t gain complete control. Also, review with these settings regularly, as updates to the app or device which you use can have the effect of resetting your choices by removing any changes or preference adjustments that you had previously made. 

Privacy problems like those described here will continue to plague social media until more rules and regulations are established to force the companies behind the popular platforms to change their practices. This seems unlikely to occur in the near term, but the more that we all understand these issues and that the public demands action toward improved privacy measures, the more likely that changes in the right direction will occur. 

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