Facebook’s New Data Policy and How to Protect Yourself

I wrote previously about my concerns with the soon-to-be implemented Facebook Data Policy. I had even planned to call this entry, “My New Year’s Resolution: Get Off Facebook.” But I’ve changed my mind as I spent more time researching and thinking about the policies.

My concern began with the broad coverage in November of Facebook’s planned January 30 data policy update. Two topics raised alarm bells: commercial rights to photographs shared on FB, and the use of location data to serve location-specific ads. Since I’m not a commercial photographer – I don’t require exclusive rights to my photos – my main concern is with location data.

My issue with the location data is not that the intent of the collection, which is to provide FB with ad revenue and me with geo-relevant advertising. Since I’m generally ignoring ads, I wouldn’t benefit from ads that know my location anyway.

What I am worried about is my data falling into the wrong hands. In a post-Snowden world, we have to weight the benefits of data shared, against the risk of discovery of our data by unfriendly parties. Do we really want our church-going habits (or lack thereof!) or visits to Vegas scrutinized in some foreign capital?

So why have I decided to keep using Facebook? Well, it’s an important means of communication for me both personally and professionally, and I like the community I’ve built there. Also, my whole family – including my dog! – are there.

Instead of turning it off, I’m going to alter my usage and use FB in a new context. I’ll describe it for you, so you can make a more informed decision about your own usage.

  • I will continue to use Facebook at home
  • I will use Facebook on my mobile devices – but with location-based services TURNED OFF (I will explain this below)
  • I will use WordPress, Twitter, SMS and LinkedIn (plus the old standby, email!) as my primary comms channels, minus location-based services

The big red switch, that individual users still control, is called Location-based Services (LBS). If you haven’t spent some time learning about how it works on your devices, and setting it to reflect your preferences, I urge you to do so now.

LBS is the process by which your phone continuously publishes its location (i.e. your location) to the apps running on your phone, and to your network provider (AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.) On most internet-connected devices, you have three choices for location settings: On, Off, or App-Specific.

LBS On is what FB and other ad-dependent vendors would like you to use. Don’t! This is the most invasive setting, and allows the app vendors to determine whether to collect and how to use your data. In a worst-case scenario, they collect your GPS data whenever your phone moves, store that data with or without your personal information (name, address) and then accidentally share that data with an unfriendly entity.

I recommend LBS Off by default, and turned on for trusted or critical apps only. With this setting, your GPS data will not be shared with your app vendors (e.g. FB), though your network provider (e.g. AT&T) may still collect it.

What will you be giving up? Well, the first thing is that Siri either won’t work, or will have limited functionality. Like when you say, “Siri, where’s the nearest Starbucks?” Siri won’t have a frame of reference to answer the question. If you lose your phone, the Find My iPhone app won’t work. And when you use Bing or Google to get directions, you may have to manually input your starting address.

Most phones allow you to switch LBS ON for some apps only, so your phone finder and mapping apps can work, but other apps will be suppressed. This is the setting I recommend.

A related question for a future entry: While I can limit the sharing of my physical location by turning off LBS on my mobile devices, who is tracking my Internet browsing habits, and can I limit the collection and use of that data?

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