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Hiawatha Bray

How to use Facebook without giving up your data

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg walked at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/file

Since Facebook can’t take a hint, maybe it’s time we took our privacy into our own hands.

Let’s start by going on strike, a one-day log-off when we all go dark and starve the social media giant of the information about our personal lives that sustains its multibillion-dollar advertising business.

While I’m still working every angle to limit what I share with Facebook, I like the idea of a strike, because we users are the company’s real labor force. We crank out the millions of posts and photos and likes and links that keep people coming back for more.

Then our online behaviors are captured and analyzed by Facebook and transformed into targeted campaigns that earn the company so much money.


So we’re entitled to some time off. Just one day ought to do it. That’s about as long as a Facebook fanatic could hold out before withdrawal symptoms set in, but it’s still long enough to make an impact.

Feb. 4 would have been an ideal day - the company’s 14th birthday. But since that day has passed, how about May 18, the day Facebook stock began trading publicly back in 2012. If enough of us refuse to log on for those 24 hours, it might get somebody’s attention.

These are dark days for the social media darling. Facebook is under investigation in the United States and United Kingdom for allowing the private data of some 50 million users to end up in the hands of a political research firm affiliated with the Trump campaign. The company had already been under intense criticism for failing to stop Russian propagandists from disrupting the 2016 election by targeting Facebook users with fake content.

These latest revelations have bolstered efforts in Congress to regulate the new generation of technology companies, fueling a backlash that has cost Facebook billions of dollars in market value in recent days.


Meanwhile, I’m working on self-defense strategies for preserving my privacy. As a journalist who covers the company, I won’t choose the most obvious solution and cancel my account. In fact, I think that’s a bad idea.

Having a Facebook account provides a way for friends, families, colleagues, and business prospects to track you down. It helps protect against identity thieves setting up a fake account in your name, and using it to scam your friends. Also, by occasionally posting positive messages on these accounts, you can build up a good online reputation. When people do an online search of your name, these accounts will rise to the top of the page and make you look good, or at least better.

Simply being on Facebook poses little threat to your privacy. That comes from the way you use the account. Every post, every link gives Facebook more information about you. Maybe too much. So the less you post, the safer you are.

But Facebook has many ways of keeping tabs on you. Even when you’re not on Facebook itself, the company plants cookies in your browser that can track your visits to other Internet sites and send you ads based on the places you go. I fight back with Ghostery, a browser plug-in that automatically blocks tracking cookies from Facebook, Google, and others. Some websites won’t let you in when they see you’re blocking these cookies, but for the extra privacy, it’s worth the bother.


Another way to deny the snoopers is to be selective about using apps from third parties that connect to your Facebook account. I’ve installed more than 60 such apps over the years, from companies like Amazon and Spotify that provide services through Facebook — some I used only for an hour or two and then forgot about. But the apps didn’t forget me. They keep track of my Facebook friends list, and some even monitor the messages I post, collecting data on me all along.

So choose these apps with care, or follow my lead and uninstall them all. It’s a tedious task, and the app makers still keep the data they’ve already collected — unless you contact them, one by one, and ask them to delete it. But one has to begin somewhere.

Then there are the major Internet sites that offer to log you in using your Facebook account. If you do that, then everything you do at that site goes into your Facebook dossier. Most such sites also let you log in with a standard e-mail address. I always choose the Facebook-free option.

If your Facebook profile is already full of questionable content, you can go in and delete items one at a time, which could take days or weeks. Or you can tell Facebook to delete your account altogether. You might even sign up later for a new account and start over. But if you choose this radical option, be sure to notify all your friends before killing the old account. That way, when you send them new friend requests, they won’t think it’s spam and ignore you.


And, of course, you should first make a copy of your old account. Facebook has a backup feature that will do this automatically and download a file to your computer.

Still, there’s no point in launching a new account if you’re just going back to your old habits. If you keep posting 10 or 20 times a day, discussing the same topics and linking to similar videos, photos, and websites, your new Facebook profile won’t differ much from the old one. And your privacy will be just as much at risk.

In the end, using Facebook compromises your privacy. But you get to decide how much.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.