Protect your data, protect your human rights: Amnesty’s three-step guide
Cambridge Analytica’s ties to the Trump campaign have made data harvesting headline news, but this story is probably just the tip of the iceberg.
The scandal engulfing Facebook has forced many of us to face up to the reality of how our personal data is collected and shared online, and highlighted new human rights challenges that have arisen in the digital age.
So if you’re concerned about how your personal data is being used, what can you do about it?
While it’s virtually impossible to avoid companies collecting and storing any information about you through your use of technology, it is possible to limit the extent and detail of the information about you they hold.
Many of us depend on social media in our personal and professional lives - and even if you have been outraged by Facebook’s failure to safeguard your data, you may not want to delete your account completely.
So here's our three-step guide to staying online and taking control over your data.
1. Understand the risks
Firstly, it’s important to understand who is collecting your data and why.
Google, Facebook and Twitter are the companies that track you most online, and if you use their services they also have detailed individual profiles on you. They use these profiles to show you specific adverts they think you'll respond to, and to personalise their services so you want to keep using them.
Although most of the information that you share privately on these platforms can only be accessed by your friends and the companies themselves, weak and confusing default settings can result in some information being made public or shared with third parties. This is where 'data brokers' and data analytics companies come in.
Cambridge Analytica is just one of many companies whose whole business is amassing and selling people’s data. These companies collect and combine both the information we make public, such as what we “like” on Facebook, with the huge amounts of data we produce unknowingly, from our voter registration records to our online browsing behaviour. This allows them to create increasingly detailed profiles of people.
Online data tracking and profiling can be perfectly legitimate, but it also bears human rights risks. It can threaten users’ rights to privacy, as well as freedom of expression, since people’s fears of being tracked can lead them to change their behaviour online. It also poses a risk of discrimination, as companies and governments could easily abuse data analytics to target people based on their race, religion, gender, or other protected characteristics.
2. Control your privacy settings
Now you know the risks, decide what information you want to share on the main platforms in future. This is the time to check your privacy settings on your social media platforms - reviewing the amount of data that’s been amassed can be eye opening!
Many platforms have the means to limit tracking users, they just don’t make this the default setting. The trick is finding how to switch tracking off, where possible.
A good place to start is the Facebook “Privacy Checkup” (on any Facebook page, click on the ? symbol and go to Privacy Checkup) which will walk you through who can see your posts and profile, as well as showing any third party apps that have access to your data.
Check the list of apps carefully and remove any you don’t recognise. Today, Facebook released a specific tool allowing you to check if your data was shared with Cambridge Analytica.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal stemmed from the ability of third party apps on Facebook to access and share users’ data. Facebook has since been forced to limit the extent to which these apps can access your data, but it’s possible these rules may change to be more permissive again in the future.
Google also provides a Privacy Check-up, where you have the option to delete information that’s already been collected and stop Google from saving information on things like your search activity, location history and your voice and audio history in the future.
Twitter doesn’t yet have a similar Privacy Check feature but you can make sure you're happy with your privacy settings on their Privacy and Safety page. Also check the list of applications that can access your account and revoke access to anything you don't want collecting information about you.
3. Use easy privacy-protecting tools
Controlling the information that Facebook, Google and Twitter hold about you is important, but it won’t stop them and other companies tracking you behind the scenes. So the next step is to switch to using online services with inbuilt privacy features.
As a search engine alternative, DuckDuckGo allows you to search the internet anonymously. You may not think your search history counts as personal data, but companies could use it to understand many things about you, from your medical concerns to your daily commute. DuckDuckGo does not collect or share any personal information when you use it. When you click on a link through DuckDuckGo, the site you are directed to does not know what words you entered to find it.
Stop third parties from tracking you when you browse the internet with Privacy Badger, an app from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). It can stop Facebook and Google from tracking you when you’re not on their websites, and also blocks many of the advertisers and data brokers that are tracking you in secret online.
You could also consider switching your web browser. Two alternatives worth considering are Brave and Firefox. Brave does a good job of blocking ads and trackers by default, whereas with Firefox you have to turn on 'Tracking Protection' manually.
If you want to dive into the technical detail on how tracking works and what you can do about it, Tactical Tech's Me and My Shadow has loads of detailed advice on how to find out what personal data is being collected and how to control your data.
Finally, these tips only relate to managing online data – you should also follow these six basic good practices for protecting your privacy online.