woman at computer with credit card

As technology sees constant growth and improvement, it becomes significantly easier to share information and data with others, whether it be friends or strangers.  While these advances increase the ease at which useful information can be accessed, they also raise the possibility for shared data to be exploited or misused.  

With the rise of social media, the access to personal information has become more prominent and easy to find. Individuals can find a wealth of information on others, most of the time with a simple Google search. On many social media accounts, individuals stay in contact with friends and family, which establishes a sense of comfort and familiarity. This sense of familiarity can backfire however, when individuals post too much information, such as cell phone numbers, email addresses, and information such as house address or school names publicly. According to the article 5 Dangers of Social Media to Discuss with your Kids posted on care.com, there is “hidden info” in pictures, called EXIF data. This EXIF data is information about the camera that the photo was taken with. The article quotes Tyler Cohen Wood, a cyber expert and public speaker, who says, “Someone can use that data to pull the exact geographic location of where that photo was taken.” In addition to EXIF data, there is also a substantial amount of information contained in the background of a picture. Individuals can piece together various landmarks or buildings that may be in the background of a photo, and receive information on one’s whereabouts from such information.

Many social media applications allow individuals to post updates from their specific location, which means that not only is the information available to the public, app developers can also view location information. According to an article published by the International Business Times (IBT), “A growing number of smartphone apps are tracking your location -- even when they're not being used.” Tracking to this extent is optional, as users can choose whether or not to enable background location services, but the article points out that there is still the possibility of this data to be breached by external sources. It highlights the example of a 2014 Target hack, where customer information such as credit cards and address details were pulled from Target databases. By allowing excessive information on oneself to be readily accessible, individuals increase the chances of the data being taken and used negatively.

“Passive data collection” allows apps to use data to tailor specific advertisements and marketing strategies to individual users. While the majority of apps and companies enable this to be optional, there are still instances where companies take data without the knowledge of consumers. One example of such is when VIZIO collected viewing history and information from 11 million smart televisions without consumer consent. According to an official release by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “VIZIO, Inc. and an affiliated company have manufactured VIZIO smart TVs that capture second-by-second information about video displayed on the smart TV, including video from consumer cable, broadband, set-top box, DVD, over-the-air broadcasts, and streaming devices.” The report further goes on to state, “VIZIO sold this information to third parties, who used it for various purposes, including targeting advertising to consumers across devices, according to the complaint.” Cases such as these display how easily information can be monitored, collected, and used.

While information can be taken and used as part of data breaches and marketing strategies, there are also many ways to comfortably post online without compromising safety or privacy. One effective way of limiting who sees posted content is to only follow or be friends with individuals that you already have a relationship with. Another way is to limit the intimacy of information posted. While it is desirable to keep friends and family updated with life events, limiting personal details goes a very long way in maintaining personal privacy.