Is it possible to 'safely' Facebook anymore?

Image: Facebook illustration
Should you just delete Facebook or is there a way to use the "free" social media platform without it making money off your data? Copyright Dado Ruvic Reuters
Copyright Dado Ruvic Reuters
By Ben Popken with NBC News Tech and Science News
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If it's 'free,' then you're the product.


Should you delete Facebook? Or is there a way to use the "free" social media platform without allowing it to make money off your personal data?

Revelations that the Trump-linked political data firm Cambridge Analytica skirted Facebook's privacy policies to suck up data on over 50 million Americans, and undercover videos showing the company executives boasting about their deceptive campaign tactics are just the nudge some users need to quit the platform entirely, judging by the social media outcry that sent the hashtag #deletefacebook trending Tuesday.

As the saying goes, when the service is free, you are the product.

"All data-based companies use collected data to make money. Where we draw the line on what they can and can't do is the $64,000 question right now," said Raj Goyle, former deputy legal director of the ACLU and co-CEO and co-founder of legal tech site Bodhala. "It's extremely hard for people to safely use a platform when they are not completely sure what they should be protecting themselves against, and what warning signs they should be looking for."

But for those who can't quite quit Facebook, there are ways to at least minimize the site's ability to monetize your personal information without entirely losing the ability to see what cute thing your cousin's baby gurgled this hour or what your co-worker thinks of his sandwich.

For starters, you can go into your applications tab. Under "Apps, Websites, and Plugins" hit the edit tab and "Disable Platform." This will stop your data from streaming through Facebook's API, which is how third parties see all your activity. It will also prevent you from logging in to other sites with Facebook, shut down your Instagram access, and you won't be able to play platform-based apps like "Farmville" anymore.

Facebook privacy settings
Screenshot of Facebook\'s current data sharing settings for individual users.Facebook privacy settings

If that's too much and you're mainly just bothered about the news that your friends who use an app could end up sharing your data even if you never used the app or got any notification, then uncheck all the radio buttons under the "Apps others use" heading for the pieces of data you don't want your friends to share.

Each button warns you that might not be able to use certain apps on Facebook and other sites, but if you just bookmark the address above then you can go always go back and re-enable something if you later find a web service isn't working the way you want it to.

The sharing doesn't stop there. "Even if your profile is set to private," said Ron Schlecht, managing founder of cybersecurity firm BTB Security, your likes, tagged photos, and other details, "can be made available to people who are not your friends or outside your social network."

Some people try to hide by using a fake name or persona on Facebook. But the cellphone number or email address they used to authenticate themselves is connected to all that data, said Schlecht.

That personal identifier can then be connected by data brokers to other sources of your data and reconnect your profile. So while you might be hidden from your old high-school boyfriend or boss, the data miners can still find you.

This is why it can be good to download a copy of all your Facebook data. It can be a memento of all your Facebook activity, but it can also be a learning experience to see just how much information you're sharing. Go under "Settings" and select the option to download your data. It will take a few minutes and the information will come in a few folders, including one that divides up your friends based on whether they're part of your "starting adult life" or "established adult life," along with a file of your facial recognition information called facedata.htm.

"In addition to raising questions about Facebook's role in the 2016 presidential election, this news is a reminder of the inevitable privacy risks that users face when their personal information is captured, analyzed, indefinitely stored, and shared by a constellation of data brokers, marketers, and social media companies," wrote EFF, a non-profit digital privacy and rights advocacy group.

Ultimately, it may be a contradiction to think that anyone can use a website designed to connect people and their data together and not have their information exploited.

"It's not possible to use Facebook safely because the platform is about putting vast amounts of personal information in one place," said Goyle. "Technology is so well developed that it can accurately analyze scraps of information to reconstruct whole profiles of valuable user data. Facebook itself cannot fully protect users from companies and people who want to make use of that information - nor does it seem to want to."

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