What social media apps know about us

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There are 73 million Facebook users in the Philippines. Indeed, Filipinos are real fans of social networks.

How much data do apps keep about us? I’ve looked at the different permissions that the top apps in the Google Play Store ask for and a few Pinoy favorites: TikTok, Grab, Zalora, Lazada, and Shopee.

The most common permissions requested by these apps are network information and access to storage and camera, which means access to pictures, recordings, documents and camera on our phone. That’s a lot of information!

These apps already have access to so much information about us because we pass it on to them freely. According to a social experiment conducted by ProPrivacy.com, 99% of users “accept”, without reading, the terms and conditions of use of the application, even if such an agreement requires naming rights to their firstborn.

Some applications have client-server encryption, like TikTok, which means that an unencrypted copy of our messages can be seen by the servers of the Chinese company ByteDance. Chat apps, like WhatsApp and Viber, support client-to-client encryption, but backup copies of conversations can be stored elsewhere. Social messaging apps, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, clearly have content visible to themselves as platforms. Shopping apps, such as Grab, Lazada, Zalora, and Shopee, contain copies of transactional information and browsing history for our products.

Have you ever wondered if websites and social media can read your mind? For example, I search for travel destinations on a search engine. When I visit Facebook, I receive advertisements for a particular vacation spot that I have visited. What is this magic?

This “mind reading” is made possible by HTTP cookies, a small piece of data stored on our computers by browsers when we visit websites. This cookie contains information, such as the website visited, transactions and search terms.

Third-party ad tracking cookies, on the other hand, are a special type of cookies placed on our computers by ad tracking services used by online platforms. Thus, if we use different platforms that use the same ad tracking networks, we may receive targeted ads based on information obtained by the ad network from other platforms; this translates into effective advertising. So, in my vacation finder example, the search engine and Facebook could use the same ad tracking network to make sure I get personalized ads. The ad tracking network is the glue that binds the different platforms together.

Certain practices of ad tracking networks seem to work against what we would expect when giving our consent to share information with a particular platform. We have the impression of being hunted digitally. I have consciously given my consent to the search engine but not to the ad tracking network or to Facebook.

As a result, we are seeing moves in the industry to minimize, remove or find alternatives to this behavior, such as the push by popular browser makers Apple and Google.

It’s safe to assume that platforms have more information than what we explicitly give them. The more information they have, the better they can deliver the right content and advertising to us. It’s like the digital “dugo-dugo”, the modus operandi where exploiters present themselves under a pretext, then users end up being victims because of the personal information they provide without knowing it.

Interacting with friends and family online provides a wealth of information about us and other people, which in turn builds the network and can lead to an advertising impression. Why do you think all apps ask for the “Contacts” permission? As the saying goes, if you don’t pay for the product, then you are the product.

Why do Lazada and Shopee need access to our microphones? Your guess is as good as mine.

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William Emmanuel Yu, Ph.D., is a technology professional, professor and researcher who is a strong advocate for Internet and technology policy making. It is part of Secure Connections, a cybersecurity project of The Asia Foundation-Philippines. The views expressed in this article (with contributions from Sam Chittick) do not necessarily reflect the views of The Asia Foundation-Philippines.

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