Facebook knows a lot about you. There are the things you consciously share with friends — photos, posts, likes, and links. But the far creepier kind of data collection is the stuff that you’re not consciously sharing: behavioral data. Behavioral data includes what you search for, whose profiles you visit, what you click on, how far you scroll. Even though your friends don’t see your search history, Facebook uses this information to learn about you.
Facebook is essentially compiling an ever-growing dossier whenever you log on. Even beyond the privacy issues, this data feeds hyper-personalization: Facebook uses your activity to gauge your interests, and show you more similar content. This hyper-personalization is dangerous in its own way.
In addition to showing you the people and pages you explicitly choose to follow, Facebook also recommends new content. Since its recommendations are primarily based on similarity to what you already "engage" with (as opposed to, say, moderating or diversifying your feed), it's natural for your feed to grow more polarized and more insular. This can distort your sense of the world: what you think is common, what you think is "obvious" or "normal."
Small Acts of Resistance
One way to avoid this data collection is to boycott Facebook entirely, but that’s a drastic move — realistically, most people won’t go that far for privacy. Are there small, pragmatic ways to resist ever-present online surveillance? Are there ways to protect yourself without abandoning online platforms entirely and moving to the forest?
It’s easy to feel helpless against large, powerful companies. But Facebook isn't a magic mind reader (yet); on the other side, behind the curtain, there are data scientists trying to piece together the footprints you leave behind. A data scientist’s job is to separate signal from noise, so if there's more random noise, it’d be slightly more difficult for Facebook to produce an accurate picture of your personality and your network.
This means that one small way to resist surveillance is to give Facebook more data — by searching for random people and pages that you’re not actually interested in. If you're going to leave a trail of breadcrumbs...you might as well leave a trail that's hard to follow.
Bruce Schneier, a security expert, spoke about this idea on a Note to Self podcast episode:
The things you search and the things you read and the things you do are being used to compile a dossier. And if you add some fake information, then the dossier isn’t as accurate and you have a little more privacy, anonymity.
So...if Facebook creeps you out but you’re not quite ready to leave the network altogether, this Chrome extension is for you!
Noisify replaces the placeholder text in your Facebook search bar every few seconds. It generates a list of names and interests from the Wordnik API and nudges you to add noise to your “digital footprints” by searching for random interests and names.
Maybe you’ll start seeing more bizarre ads, or a wider range of suggested friends. Maybe you’ll actually stumble upon something delightful in the process.
This is a small act, and it certainly won’t solve all our problems, but it’s better than nothing.
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