What you do on your phone is your business, right? Whether it’s gawking at the kookiest Met Gala outfits on your morning commute, checking your bank balance, or debriefing on last night’s antics with the groupchat, it’s a given that you wouldn’t want someone peeking over your shoulder and analysing what you look at, click, and chat about.
Except that’s the reality. While there’s no physical nosy parker snooping at your digital device, any number of companies can be using the information you share on websites, apps and social media for their own purposes.
What does that mean? The answer is far from simple. Your digital device and the applications and features you use on it are packed with ways to track your every move. Sound like something from a Netflix dystopia? It’s standard practice.
Companies can track your online actions to learn more about you. The information you share online might seem everyday or trivial, but it can be used for a whole host of things – this could be to make money through advertising or product development, or as a way to influence behaviour or opinion. As last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal made clear, seemingly insignificant things like the games we play, the quizzes we take, and the friends we make, can all be used, or ‘harvested’, by companies who wish to know more about you.
Bits of Freedom is a digital rights organisation that works to raise awareness and champion online rights. Director Hans de Zwart explains why we need to think more carefully about the role tech plays in our society.
He says: “We need to make conscious decisions about when, what and how we use technology, and what those technologies mean to our lives, communities and democracy.
“Twenty years ago no one could foresee the incredible power that platforms like Facebook, and Google would have in our lives. Last year, The Cambridge Analytica scandal made it suddenly very clear that these companies have got a particular role in our lives and that role isn’t necessarily to create a healthy democracy.”
If you want to take control of the data and information you share while scrolling, searching and browsing the internet, here’s a few steps you can take courtesy of Bits of Freedom:
Consider how you use social media
It’s hard to think of a life without social media. But you don’t necessarily need to go cold turkey. It’s good to take some time to familiarise yourself with your privacy settings across social media. What are you sharing with your social media provider? Are you happy with the level of tracking/advertising you are receiving? If not, change your settings or stop using the app or website altogether.
Hans says: I'd never tell people that they should leave Facebook. I am in a privileged position to be able to leave. Just be much more conscious of the technology you use. It is very worthwhile to go through your settings on social media and see if you still like the choices you have made, or if the companies have made new features you don’t want to use.
Think about the apps you download
Your smartphone or tablet is probably jam-packed with apps, but what information are they taking from you? Check your settings and ensure your apps are serving your needs.
Hans says: Think about the apps that are on your phone and the things you regularly open in your browser. Think about what those things mean in your life; what you get out of them, why do you use them, should you use them less? Really make a conscious choice about technology that you have and use. That also means things like deciding whether to take your phone to the bedroom.
Use an ad/tracker blocker.
An ad blocker can show you how and when you’re being tracked and block any unwanted tracking.
Hans says: A very practical choice is to install an ad/tracker blocker in your browser. If you do that you’ll notice that you share much less data. And you will be pleasantly surprised how much faster your internet suddenly is!
Use a privacy friendly search engine
We use search engines everyday, but the information on what you search isn’t always private. If you want to keep your searches private, opt for a search engine that doesn’t track your activity.
Hans says: If you switch to a more privacy friendly search engine you won’t feed the machine as much information.
Think about your internet browser
Browsers frame the way we see the internet, while also tracking the way you use it. Research what information your browser is tracking, and change provider if you’re unhappy with what you find.
Hans says: Your browser is your most important tool for accessing the web. Luckily, we are starting to see a new generation of browsers that use the privacy of their users as their starting point.
Turn off location tracking while you aren’t using it
Companies can track your location even when you’re not using their apps or websites. To stop them literally following your every move, turn off location services when your apps aren’t in use.
Hans says: I think it is very important to only turn on the location on your phone when you need it. We have learnt that a lot of companies are constantly looking at where you are, and they are using that data to predict general future behaviour.
Find more recommendations from Hans and the Bits Of Freedom team here, or head to the #TechForGood hub to explore the topic.