If you knew that every single commercial or ad you ever had to see would only be for the exact products you wanted, what would you be willing to give up in trade? Would you be willing to post your home address for others to see? Your income bracket? Your birth date? Mind you, this information wouldn’t only go to your approved social media connections…would you be willing to tell the whole internet?
For most of us, the automatic answer is no, but the reality of social media isn’t too far off. Some platforms like Facebook rely on targeted advertising to keep the lights on, and to keep the service free for the public to use.
You might argue that it’s a small price to pay for the ability to connect to practically anyone in the world, and sure, advertising in and of itself is not inherently bad. But when advertising crosses the line into invasion of privacy, consumers have to ask hard questions about what personal data they’re giving away.
Facebook and other similar platforms are for-profit companies, which only means they’re just like every other for-profit company in operation. In their particular industry, they rely on snippets of data that track where you’ve been online and what you’ve been looking at. This tracking is justified like this: if you search for a safe car seat as a shower gift for your co-worker, it would be great to see future ads for what brands are on sale and which ones have the highest safety ratings.
If the search was more personal, however, you probably don’t want Facebook highlighting your activity and spreading it across all of your internet activity.
Imagine searching for information about a serious medical condition or unpopular political views. What if you sat at your desk on your lunch hour and looked up drug rehab facilities or reproductive choice options for your teenager? Envision a nightmare scenario in which a woman searches online for divorce attorneys or information on domestic violence crisis centers, only to have related ads pop up the next time her husband uses their computer.
The old adage that nothing is ever deleted or private on the internet may very well be true. But why are we actively encouraging social media users to throw caution to the wind, as though this kind of tracking and data collection is just inevitable? It’s not selfish to not want advertisers to know what health concerns you searched for. It’s also not wrong to not want your employer or potential employers to know about these specific health concerns, particularly if you are managing them appropriately and they do not affect your ability to do your job. Basically, you have every right to not want to be tracked and mined and crunched and followed.
Yet, that’s exactly what internet users are being asked to do in exchange for “free” social media. Experts who’ve spoken up in favor of targeted advertising only speak to the benefits it has for others, such as better search engine results, better analytics, or better software. They don’t speak to the matter of your personal data ending up in a server somewhere, stored for an unlimited amount of time and accessible by anyone with the means to get into it. Your privacy is vitally important, and it’s not something that one should give up so casually.