Many people have heard the term “data mining.” It’s the process by which companies sift through huge amounts of info in order to find something useful they can exploit – not unlike mining in the real world, where one digs to extract something of value. With so much data on the Internet, it’s hard to find nuggets of quality information, but now companies are finding rich veins of the most useful of all minerals: your personal, intimate details.
You might think you’re pretty savvy. You don’t give out your e-mail address. You’re picky about who you are friends with on social media and so on. But you may have already fallen into one of these deep dark pits and don’t even realize it...
This morning in my Facebook feed, my friend Laura proudly reported her “2015 Online Report Card.” According to this app, her profile was viewed 12,139 times with 9,481 likes. Is that good? I really don’t know. What I do know, or what I managed to research, is that in the process of presenting her friends with this enthralling factoid, she gave some guy in India almost complete access to almost everything she’s ever posted on Facebook. She doesn’t know who he is or what he intends to do with that data. Neither does anybody else.
There are literally thousands of these apps. One such company bills itself as “Meaww” and has a huge stable of these seemingly innocuous Facebook features. From, “Who is your most adorable friend?”, “What is your most used word?”, and your “2015 Year in Review”, to “How old is your soul?”
Why should it matter? Is there anything really “compromising” in peoples’ social media feeds? If you’re not doing anything wrong, does it matter? Can it really be used against you?
Most people have no idea how much intimate information about them is revealed by seemingly innocuous participation in social media. It’s much more than you think. Your likes, comments and friends reveal everything from your marital status, sexual preference, political leanings, fetishes, strengths, weaknesses, family, location, where you attended school, how many children you have, any health problems you’ve encountered, drug or alcohol issues, depression…and the list goes on. This information could simply be used to identify products you might desire – or used by a future employer to determine your suitability for a job, or allow healthcare and insurance companies to deny you services, set your rates a certain way, or even prosecute you for fraud. Maybe your Facebook history reveals you’re an unfit parent and you lose custody of your children? All these things have happened before to others who thought their daily comments were largely innocent and had a loose grasp on their social media content. Nobody knows where this data goes and who’s using it?
Everybody has spurts of stupidity. The advent of sites like Facebook has solidified these moments of bad judgment and third parties can make them never go away. It’s easy for any online user to get “shafted” by these pits of privacy invasion… it seems so innocent. Hey, why not find out, “Which Dr. Seuss quote defines you?”, “What’s your Facebook post I.Q.?”, or “Are you left-brained or right-brained?” What’s wrong with that?
Most people have no idea how much intimate information about them is revealed by seemingly innocuous participation in social media.
Underneath these fleeting moments of amusement, however, lurks a more sinister objective: Scarf every bit of data possible about who you are, what you like, what you hate, who you’re dating, where you live, who your friends are – what you think about them – what books you’ve read, what pictures you’ve taken on your cell phone, what you do for a living, who you’re voting for, and much more. Then, stick that data on a server in India, China, Russia or anywhere, all beyond the scope of privacy law. And this isn’t a one-time thing. In many cases, once you give these apps permission to examine your account to produce a simple graphic you share one day, they’re still “hooked in” siphoning everything.
Who are these companies and what’s their intent? This appears to be a closely guarded secret. An examination of who owns the domain MEAWW.COM, a popular provider of more than 80 of these Facebook apps, is anonymous, protected by a security/obscurity company that is based in Panama. According to the site Alexa, Meaww.com is currently ranked the 376th (http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/meaww.com) most active domain in America, above Playstation.com and even NBC.com. But nobody knows who this company is or who runs it. One of the most popular sites in the world…. and they’re anonymous? Funny how they want to know everything about YOU, but want you to know nothing about them.
Other similar companies are located in various corners of the planet where personal security and privacy laws are essentially non-existent. If you think their intent of collecting your data is solely limited to letting you know which friend of yours is the “coolest,” you’re mistaken.
“We use the information and data we collect in connection with operation, maintenance and enhancement of our services and features, and for other administrative purposes or internal operations, such as communicating with our users, data analysis, testing and research. … In addition, we may use the information and data we collect about you in order to measure and understand the effectiveness of our ads and other content and offer you tailored content. ...Meaww also reserves the right to disclose any information in case it believes, in good faith, that such disclosure is appropriate or necessary in order to enforce our EULA, take precautions against liabilities, investigate and defend itself against any third party claims or allegations, assist government enforcement agencies, protect the security or integrity of the WebSite and our servers and protect the rights and property, of Meaww, its users and\or others… Meaww processes Personal Information on its servers in many countries around the world. Such information may be stored on any of our servers, at any location.”
And do domestic regulations have any ability to control data that is stored on a server in Somalia or India? Doubtful.
Activism Director from the Electronic Frontier Foundation Rainey Reitman asks, “Can [your data] be sold or shared with other companies or affiliates, or with the government? These are real concerns. People don’t read privacy policies, but even if they did, those policies can be vague, leaving more questions than answers. Facebook could take a more proactive approach to educating users about untrusted apps.
Also note that even if you’re smart enough to not give these apps permission to siphon your personal social media content, if you’re friends with someone who has access to your posts, you may still be compromised.
What can be done about these apps? The first step is making sure you disconnect them from your account. (https://www.facebook.com/help/204306713029340/) This also applies to any third-party web site that you use a “Login with Facebook” option – that function also gives your personal data to others, almost always more than is needed to login. Consider avoiding using the “Login with Facebook” feature on web sites and disable their hooks with the previous URL. Facebook logins are “apps” as well.
Let’s be honest though… the only real way to keep your personal information private is to not ever post anything online. That’s just not practical in this high-tech 21st century. But it is important to maintain a slight air of caution whenever you’re dealing with others who want access to your accounts. Don’t underestimate the sacrifice one can make of their personal information or the damage that could be caused. Try to be as safe as you can and avoid having your most precious resources carted away and sold to the highest bidder.
Oh, and if you really want to know which Facebook friend is your soul mate? It’s Pat!