Social media is becoming an inseparable part of our lives. We instinctively share everything – from what we’re having for lunch to intimate moments with close friends and relatives – on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Recent studies have shown that people spend an average of three to four hours a day checking their social media pages.
The continuous drive to share everything on social media is not without any risks. We often forget just how much data we actually share on social media, including personal details and information that should not be shared online. Even worse, we forget that the data we share on social media sites can be used by other parties for different purposes.
Yes, other people can access the information you share on social media, even when some information is shared privately. How many people actually have access to the data on your social media profile? Let’s take a closer look.
What You’re Disclosing
Before we get to how your personal information is accessible and can be used, we need to take a closer look at the kind of data that others can access from our social media pages. In other words, we need to be more aware of the information we share on social media.
When you create a social media page and fill in details about yourself, that information automatically becomes available to certain parties, including advertisers. The same is true for your email address and the photo you use as your avatar.
Every post you make contain a lot of details about yourself too. Your interest in a particular subject, your location (if you set your geotag to On), and even details about your feelings are being tracked and collected. The more you post, the more others can know about who you are and what you like.
You also share your geolocation whenever you access a social media site. There are trackers like Facebook Pixel that are designed to track you beyond the boundaries of the social media sites you use. The next websites you visit are recorded as long as those websites display ads from social networks.
These details may not seem significant when seen as granular data, but they are exactly the kind of small details that lead to a comprehensive insight about you as an internet user. The insight is then used to target you in a specific and organized way.
Have you ever heard the rumor that says Facebook is listening to your conversations? Do you believe that Facebook is using voice data to display targeted ads? Is that how you see an ad for a hotel in Hawaii after having a conversation with a friend about going to the island?
The answer to that last question is a big no. Well, at least at this point, Facebook is not listening to your conversations. What the company does is predict your behavior using the countless data you have posted online, particularly using details you shared on social media.
Facebook isn’t displaying ads after hearing about your plans to visit Hawaii. It is displaying that ad because it can predict that you would want to visit Hawaii soon based on your social media (and online) behavior. That’s how accurate the insights about you can be and it is derived from social media posts.
Gaining Access to Your Data
Advertisers and other parties can gain access to insights about who you are, but not the granular data. Advertising networks behind some of the most popular social media sites sell insights about users like me and you to advertisers for more accurate targeting.
The data itself isn’t sold directly. Instead, Facebook and other social media networks offer detailed targeting tools to help advertisers get their ads in front of the right audience. They’re doing this with impeccable accuracy too, hence the sudden appearance of an ad about Hawaii.
There is also no way to access the granular data directly within the network. Some say that social media sites aren’t actually reading your posts and treating your account separately. They use machine learning and artificial intelligence to process such a huge stream of data quickly.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.
Your Data Is Still Accessible
While advertisers may not be able to access your data from within the network, they can still have access to personal details and valuable information about who you are through other means. The most popular – and the most effective – way of gaining access to your data is through data scraping.
Data scraping is the process of collecting publicly available data for the purpose of big data analysis. Using an automated tool, advertisers can go through one social media post after another to collect information that they find valuable.
Advertisers can also be very specific about the kind of data they want to collect. The data scraper or web scraper can be customized to search for certain phrases, types of data, or specific social media posts. The collected data sets are then processed and visualized.
If you are not alarmed by this fact yet, this next revelation will certainly capture your attention: anyone can use the same data scraping tool to collect personal information. With the help of a tool for scanning the World Wide Web for keywords and data, anyone can collect information from your social media posts.
That’s alarming for two reasons. First, it is a reminder that everything we share on social media and the internet, in general, can be used to gain insights on us for whatever reason. That last part is the second reason; we don’t always know how the details we shared online are used, or for what purpose.
To sum up, nothing you share on social media is private. Publicly available information can be scraped, collected, and analyzed for further use. How the details we share online are used is entirely up to the people with access to those data, i.e. everyone.