What To Do When Your Privacy Is Violated And Your Details Are Public

Your relationship with the Internet started out so well! Long before you realized it, sites like Facebook and Google were tracking your every move and keeping records on you to you use against you. Fight back!

online privacy

It may have started with an American Online disc promising 40 hours of free time, or it may have started with your university email account and use was limited to time spent in the school library. Perhaps it was with odd-duck Juno, connecting to download new email messages and then only dialing back in to re-connect for a quick send-and-receive, and no real time spent “online”. Or it may have started after “AOL” was unlimited and free, and you weren’t among those who had to create a brand-new email address every time you needed to score more free time from a new disc – seriously, those things were everywhere!

No matter how it started, we’re all in the same boat today. Well, unless you’re still connecting from a university library computer anonymously and your home life is spent in a cabin in the mountains somewhere living the life unplugged. Side note: There’s a reason people pay to travel to the most remote locations in the world – unplugged – for a back-to-the-basics experience, sometimes all the way to staying in a tent in a sleeping bag and fishing or foraging for food. It’s ironic how we’ll consider paying for this as a vacation, given the access we have to modern amenities like running water, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and maybe a Keurig.

Are we on information overload? Are we overwhelmed with data and addicted to being busy? Well, yes to both – but that’s not the real reason we revert to rustic living. It’s the feeling of control over everything in your immediate world and being in charge of your destiny. It’s knowing the unknown doesn’t live in some dark room halfway around the globe, waiting to steal your credit card information or plant malware on your laptop through one innocent but careless action on your part. We’re going to skip the part about possible bears or wild animals on that extreme camping expedition analogy we’re making here.

Back in the real world, where Google and Facebook exist, we now know that those are just two of the major organizations who use the information gathered from us online to benefit them. Yes, the fine print we accept without reading vaguely indicates the information they collect will be used to cater our online experiences to our preferences, etc., but no matter how you look at it, the primary benefactor in that data collection isn’t us. Google collects the data to serve us advertisements, deliver sponsored search results which are really ads that charge the advertiser a premium to show their search result at the top – from which, again, Google benefits. We’re not saying this is a bad thing – oh, no! But at the same time, we need to be incredibly cautious about what information we do share. After all, knowledge is power. We already know Google is in an extremely powerful position, being the exception and the rule, depending on the circumstances.

Now that we’re learning more about the Internet and how organizations are using data to target consumers – us – and we’re learning the unfortunate side effects – for us – about the relationships these organizations have with other major organizations who are willing to pay for our information. All so they, in turn, can then target us with more advertising and messaging. We refer back to the earlier comment about information overload.

The question we face is, what can we do? How can we take back control of life in the world where we connect to the Internet every single day, whether it’s to check email, post a status to Facebook, share an image on Instagram, or use Google to search for a recipe?

We’ll tell you.

There are steps you can take to see what information Google has collected on you. We warn you, before you follow these steps, be prepared to understand Google has far more information than you realize, and it can feel like an intrusion. It may feel like the last time you went to a physical ATM – way back in the day – and were worried about that guy behind you who wasn’t at least 4 feet back, and you were worried he’d see your PIN and rob you.

For Google:

  • Log into your personal Google Account. You already have one if you’ve read this far. Chances are you’re already signed in. How to know? This is simple: go to https://www.google.com/ and look in the upper right corner. If there is the avatar you’ve chosen or an image you recognize, you’re signed in. If not, there will be a blue rectangle that says “Sign In”.
  • Once you’re logged in, visit this link: Google Maps Timeline.
    • This pulls up Google Maps and may give you a dialogue box with a brief introduction: “Explore your timeline”, with the text under this that “Only you can see your timeline”.
    • “What’s Location History?” wants to tell you that you’re about to see a personalized map of all the places you’ve been with your logged-in devices. This is where you’re promised better commute options and improved search results.
    • You’re next promised control, with the option to delete anything you prefer.
    • Clicking through will take you to a page where Google tells you what it thinks your home address and work address are. These may be blank.
    • At the bottom left, there is a blue button: “Manage Location History”.
    • This is your option to delete the data Google has collected from your usages and stored.

For Facebook:

  • Log into your personal Facebook Account.
  • Once logged in, there will be a drop-down menu in the upper right corner that just looks like a triangle pointing down. Click this to see the drop-down menu.
  • Select “Settings”.
  • In the left navigation menu, select “General”.
  • In the center panel, you’ll see a series of items – probably about a half dozen, depending on the latest iteration of Facebook. Underneath these menu items, you’ll see an option to “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”
    • Depending on your Facebook tenure and activity, this can take a very long time to download. Clicking this text will take you to a page with a green button that reads “Start My Archive”. You will probably be prompted for your password again at this point.
    • Facebook will happily email you when your archive is complete – it’s ok, they already know your email address, remember?

This is not necessarily related to all those personality quizzes some Facebook users love about “Which Harry Potter Character Are You?” or “What Color Is Your Aura?” or “What Type of Dog Breed Are You?”, and the data that is collected through this – by the way, it’s typically your email address and your list of friends. With the news of Facebook selling information on over 80 million of its users recently, there is a large movement to #DeleteFacebook, but we’re not sure jumping ship is the answer.

Updating activity on Facebook isn’t as straightforward as it is on Google, but at least now you know what is being collected from you now from both and how to handle it. As we mentioned, knowledge is power, and the more power you can take back, the more control you have over your digital destiny.

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