Here's what you can do to stop big tech from manipulating you online

Here's what you can do to stop big tech from manipulating you online
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Did Russian operatives use Facebook as a way to deepen the political divide in America during the 2016 Presidential election?

Facebook has faced ongoing scrutiny for selling 3,000 ads to a Russian agency during the campaign — some of which were meant to deepen public disagreements about Muslims and the Black Lives Matter movement — leaving some to wonder just how much power Facebook holds in political discourse.

In fact, the same tools that empower advertisers to target and share certain messages with a specific audience can potentially be used by foreign propagandists to do the very same thing, and at a relatively low cost. Not only can they broadcast whatever message they want, fake news or otherwise, but they can also target an audience with pinpoint-precision to get the biggest impact with the least amount of money spent.

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The same data collection tools are available to foreign propagandists as are available to legitimate advertisers. When one of their ads or trackers pops up on a website, it can read and write cookies the same way a regular ad does – meaning that it can mine your browsing behavior and build profiles about you to help target you again later. The difference is that while a regular advertiser might want to merely sell you a product, a more nefarious character might want to politically influence you, or your vote.

 

Websites know more than you think about your online behavior

Here’s a sobering fact: Trackers that collect data on internet users’ online behavior are present on at least 79 percent of websites. Many of these trackers collect data to create detailed user profiles that can be bought, sold, and used by advertisers to target individuals with a never-ending stream of ads.

In collecting user data, trackers can gain access to highly personal information, not only about an individual’s browsing and shopping habits but also about their financial situation, sexual orientation, health status, political views, and religious beliefs. In fact, web tracking has become so pervasive that approximately ten percent of websites send the data they’ve collected to ten or more different companies, and 15 percent of all page loads on the internet are monitored by ten or more trackers.

And the more information that trackers collect on internet users’ browsing habits — often without their knowledge — the more data that can be used to manipulate them. Consumers simply don’t have the upper hand when it comes to online transactions. As a result, they are subject to identify theft, online scams, propagation of fake news, unethical monitoring, and other malicious behavior.

Take action against foreign propagandists

The bottom line is that personal data is taken from you each time you visit a website; this helps third parties to target you with ads in exchange for what appears to be “free” content – a lopsided transaction that puts your privacy and security at risk. National data protection laws will never be able to fully protect individuals from this type of for-profit data collection, especially as companies get more sophisticated in how they use your information.

Just look at Google, which announced in May 2017 that it would begin to tie billions of credit card transactions to the online behavior of its users, which it already tracks with data from Google-owned applications like YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and more. The program, which is indicative of what companies are incentivized to do, clearly puts users’ privacy at risk; it is now the subject of a Federal Trade Commission complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center in late July.

While no decisions have been made on that case, consumers can take small steps right now to protect their online privacy.

  • Monitor who has access to your internet browsing activity. Download a browser extension that will help you monitor all the sites that are tracking your online behavior; block the sites you do not want to have access to this data.
  • Use search engines that don’t track personal information; Cliqz is a great example of this.
  • Configure your browser to delete cookies.

While these steps are a good start to reclaiming your online privacy, consumers need cooperation from websites to make online transactions more equitable. Websites themselves need to be more transparent about the true cost of their online content, finding ways to empower consumers to better estimate the value of the content they are consuming versus the price they're paying for it.

Websites — and their advertisers — need to commit to being more forthcoming to users about the trove of personal information they are gathering from site visits. This will help consumers to make more informed decisions about where they spend their time online, and to avoid being manipulated.

Jeremy Tillman is director of product at Ghostery, a provider of free software designed to enhance web browsing by detecting and blocking thousands of third-party data-tracking technologies.