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Facebook proves digital privacy is only a myth

May 4, 2018 GMT

My husband was reading The New York Times on his iPad when he suddenly exclaimed, “You must read this!” For those of you who are ready to complain about the Times’ liberal viewpoint, this issue is about digital privacy and is not a liberal or conservative issue. We are all in this mess together.

Perhaps truly competent technology specialists can maintain their internet privacy, but the rest of us might as well learn that our digital and computer files cannot be kept secret; that is only a myth. I refer you to Brian X. Chen’s April 11 Times column, “I downloaded the information that Facebook has on me. Yikes.”

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Mr. Chen is the lead consumer technology reporter for the Times and writes “Tech Fix,” in which he informs readers how to solve their tech problems. So, he’s quite proficient in understanding 21st-century digital issues. Mr. Chen was shocked to see that Facebook had accessed great amounts of his personal information, although he does not post much on Facebook and rarely clicks on ads.

While I often post my columns, wish friends a happy birthday and show a few friends and family photos, I’ve avoided the intriguing quizzes and surveys and often take a break from Facebook. Besides, a tech-savvy son-in-law guided me in setting up my Facebook account with as much privacy as was readily available.

So, I followed Mr. Chen’s lead (which anyone can do) and set up the steps to take a look at what Facebook knew about me. As Harry Caray, the revered Chicago Cubs sportscaster used to say, “Holy Cow!”

Let’s start with ads. It’s one thing to choose to watch Super Bowl ads; it’s another thing to find out you are viewing ads you never saw. I was shocked to find that I had somehow clicked on over one hundred ad topics ranging from Donald Trump to Bill Clinton and Canadian forces to Delaware’s at-large congressional district.

Another section of my Facebook personal data showed that what appears to be news items are actually ads. For example, an item about the schoolteachers’ pay under discussion in the West Virginia Senate was considered an ad.

Even more amazing was the almost 150 advertisers who had uploaded my contact information. Some of these advertisers were familiar companies and others were merchants I frequent. But why have the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, Jxcycle, Angela Paxton and many others I have never heard about accessed my contact information?

Most distressing is Facebook’s ability to lift my (and your) contact lists. I never willingly gave Facebook or any other group permission to access my contact list, but some “agree” button with pages and pages of small print must have done just that.

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Facebook is not the only company to wring all sorts of personal data from unsuspecting users. It’s just that they are in the public’s crosshairs just now. It’s naive to think others around the globe are not doing the same. You can bet that all affinity and credit card companies are mining personal data and that Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google and more are not only providing us with fun and help, but also sucking out all sorts of private information for their company’s use.

Hacking and digital espionage aren’t the issue here, but they are affecting technology security not only for individuals but also for businesses and governments throughout the world. The bottom line, courtesy of Facebook, is that digital security is only a myth.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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