How to Protect Your Privacy on Social Media
Using these platforms costs more than money. It costs us our privacy.
Hey there. This is a lightly edited excerpt from my new book Terms of Service that ran last month at Gospel Centered Discipleship. I am being lazy and running this today as it’s been a busy few weeks! Thank you for your grace. More new writing next week. :-)
Before the birth of our daughter, my wife Susie and I decided that we would not post any pictures of her on the internet for an indefinite period of time after she was born. This decision upset some friends and family members who don’t live nearby and can’t see our daughter very often. A lot of people didn’t understand why we were doing this. People tell us we are “weird” for not posting our daughter’s picture online. They’re right!
But think about that for a second. My wife and I are the weird ones because we don’t post pictures of our toddler on the internet. If you told new parents in 2002, “In fewer than 10 years it will be totally normal to post a picture of your toddler in the bathtub on the internet for the world to see,” they would have looked at you like you were a huge creep. Today, you’re weird if you don’t do that. It’s crazy how quickly our expectations and norms change.
Susie and I have plenty of reasons we decided not to post pictures of our daughter online, and I don’t need to go through all of those with you here. But the reason I share that is this: to take privacy seriously today requires intentionality and may cause you to be “weird,” if you can handle that. Let me provide you with just a few practical ways you can be intentional about protecting your privacy online without having to stop using the internet completely.
Turn Location Services Off. Most social media apps will ask you to turn on Location Services to access special features associated with their platforms. Instagram, for instance, will let you add locations or local temperatures to your Stories if you have Location Services activated. Most people, wanting these location-based features, turn on location services without thinking twice. If you want to keep these apps from always knowing where you are, you should turn Location Services off and learn to live without those extra features.
Limit the Personal Information You Share. I have read a handful of stories over the years about people who had their homes robbed while on vacation because they boasted on Facebook about their 10-day Hawaiian excursion and someone with whom they were “friends” decided to take advantage of that information. Take some time and browse your social media profiles pretending like you’re a stranger coming across your page—what kind of information are you freely giving up about yourself? Is your address in the background of a Facebook profile picture? Did you accidentally take a picture of your credit card on the table when snapping a picture of your date night for Instagram? Could someone create a family tree of your entire living family based on profile information? Why would you willingly give this up? What do you gain? Pay attention to what you share about yourself.
Dig Into Platform Privacy Settings. Most social media platforms you use have the ability to give you more privacy than you have by default. Platforms like Facebook do not make privacy settings strict by default because the more strictly you lock down your information, the less information can be gathered about you, and the less valuable advertisements are. Facebook, as an example, would be in a bad place if everyone on the platform turned on the most restrictive privacy settings they make available. But, you can find settings that restrict the information Facebook gathers about you! Just navigate to the “Privacy” settings within Facebook and go through the different options. You should do this on every app you have, frankly, whether or not it’s social media.
I could list a dozen more ways to take control of your privacy on social media, but you can find those yourself if you want. One of the most common concerns I hear about the internet and privacy today is, “The government could track us and know everything about us.” While we haven’t seen an abuse of social media like that quite yet, is Facebook or Google tracking you and knowing everything about you that much better? What if we’re so concerned about one privacy boogeyman that we’ve willingly embraced another?
These platforms have some features to support user privacy, but they only go so far. The only real way to free ourselves of the privacy violations we may experience via the social internet would be to abstain from the platforms completely. Most of us feel either unwilling or unable to do that. It’s understandable. I would love to disconnect from the social internet completely when I think about the potential privacy violations, but I love too much of it to disconnect completely.
What is most important is that we recognize the poison in the water. We must be vigilant to recognize which platforms are more grievous offenders of our privacy than others. We must be willing to recognize that every click, tap, like, and comment is a drip, drip, drip of data we deposit into the vast well of data that many want to use for their profit and our loss.
The Cost We All Pay
Facebook is free. So is Instagram, and Google, and Twitter, and all of the other most common apps you use every day. But they come with great cost.
Using these platforms costs more than money. It costs us our privacy.
The revolution of the social internet is a bell we cannot un-ring. We cannot escape the social internet. It will be with us until the end of time. It is now the water in which we swim, and like fish, we simply can’t exist outside of it. We can delete our accounts. We can revert to “dumb phones.” But the social internet will persist and it will infiltrate our lives in some way.
So why have I spent this time explaining the privacy perils of an environment we can’t escape? Because I want everyone reading this to recognize that the social internet is not a neutral tool. The water in which we are swimming is poisoned. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we will be able to resist manipulation from the platforms themselves or the people who abuse them.
The social internet doesn’t cost us any money, but it might cost us our freedom and our minds. Further, from a Christian perspective, it’s not like the Bible speaks specifically to “privacy as a human right.” But I do think that we should be conscious of how gross invasions of privacy can infringe upon the dignity we have as people made in the image of God. When people are viewed as little more than wells of data to be tapped for marketable information, it is hard to see them as beautiful beings made to reflect their creator. The invasions of privacy we experience through the social internet are demeaning to our personhood. Let’s be aware of this and, even if we don’t disconnect completely, be more wary of what we share.