How We Give Away Our Privacy (And How to Take It Back)

Deciding what information should be public isn’t just important for your reputation and mental health. Keeping your account numbers and identifying information secret can help prevent financial fraud, protecting you and property. In a country like Syria in the midst of turmoil, your privacy can be a matter of life and death.

But for most of us, we’re willing to trade a litte of our privacy for a service we like, or a little company.

Thorin Klosowski recently published a piece on Lifehacker called “Living in Public: What Happens When You Throw Privacy Out the Window”. In it, he describes how he, a very private person, decided to live his life in public.

For three weeks, Thorin shared his location through location-based social networks wherever he went. He made all of his activity on his favorite apps public. He allowed all of his Internet activity to be tracked by anyone who wanted to track it.

After three weeks, he asked a stranger to take a look at all of his activity and tell him what she thought. What she said and what Google thought about him (see what Google thinks about you here) turned out to be pretty accurate.

The reason that social networks are addictive, I’d argue, is that they are pretty good representations of who we are in real life. The problem arises as we share we may create evidence online that can look bad out of context—like those party pictures. The old notions of a private self that your boss doesn’t know are transforming drastically every day. Some of it is beyond your control. But there is a lot you can do.

The first thing to do is to think about the tools that may give away your privacy.

Here are a few:

  • Social networks—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Do we need to mention Google+?
  • Location-sharing services like Foursquare or posting pictures that include your location data on it.
  • Browsing the Internet without turning off tracking tools.
  • Allowing services like Google to track your history.
  • Apps that encourage social sharing.

How can you limit the privacy you give away?

  • Master the privacy settings on every social network you use.
    You always need to keep whom you’re sharing with in mind. And it’s always best to share under the premise that anyone in the world could come across your post. Settings for Facebook may be ‘Labyrinthian’. But settings generally resemble Twitter’s two basic choices: public or locked down. You should also enable two-step authentication tools when available, such as for Google.
  • Avoid using private computers or open Wi-Fi networks when you don’t have a VPN running.
  • Use strong passwords your friends can’t guess.
  • Use tools that stop your web activity from being blocked. Klosowski has a good list of them in his post under the heading “Letting Websites Track and Collect All the Data They Want”.
  • Avoid apps that encourage social sharing and turn off location data in your images.
  • Keep ALL of your devices patched and protected with the latest system and security software. Our free Health Check makes that easy for your PC.
  • Always think before you click publish, post or check-in.

For every free service we use, there is a cost. On the Internet that cost is usually privacy.

You can’t always expect people to respect your privacy. But you can always respect your own.

What tools am I missing that give away or protect your privacy?


(CC image by Lance Nielsen.)

More posts from this topic


Did a funny test in Facebook? Time to clean the permissions.

You are precious. You are very valuable. At least to companies dealing in advertising and customer profiling. The value of you and your peers make giants like Google and Facebook tick, with a combined revenue of about $78 billion. I’m sure most of you understand this value. But how many are really making smart choices to guard it? If you’re on Facebook, you may have seen posts like this: “Your Friday night. Tina wants to sleep. Jan destroys furniture. Aaron wakes up handcuffed. Wilhelm starts a drinking competition.” Clicking the image takes you to, or a localized version in your own language. Once there you can create your own test that reveals funny things about you and your friends. It’s obvious that these test are more entertaining than scientific. And this site can’t be blamed for lacking fantasy! Who thinks you’re sweet? How many children will you have? Who should you write a love song for? Who of your friends belong in your stuffed animal collection? Stuffed animal collection! OMG. LOL. :) You can find out all this and much more with the tests at The site is operated by a German company named Socialsweethearts, that claim to have over 1500 tests in more than 40 languages! OK, just another funny and harmless site that creates virally spreading posts and cashes in on advertising, you might think. But let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here. Many of the test involve your friends, revealing whom would be or do something. And to provide this they must know who your friends are, right? So it’s perfectly legit when a dialog pops up asking for access to your Facebook account and friends list. Wait! This is where you should stop and think. Let’s rephrase what’s going on. You purchase an automatically generated joke about you and your friends and pay by allowing them access to your friend list and Facebook wall, including all your past, current and future posts. A good deal? No, I don’t think so. And on top of that, you pay with knowledge about all your friends too, but without asking them for permission. Ok, Socialsweethearts is a German company, and Germany has strong privacy laws. I think there is a pretty good chance that this company isn’t misusing your data shamelessly, even if they definitively has the technical opportunity to do so. But this is pure luck. I bet that virtually none of the folks using these tests actually checked the background of the company and made an educated decision to trust it. Did you? But on the other hand. Pretty much all the giants that make billions on our private data are from the Americas. Europe has totally lost this race. A German company entering the same business successfully would be bright news, sort of. Bad news for your privacy but good news from European business perspective. So don’t worry too much if you have used the services on But this is anyway an excellent opportunity to clean up the list of apps that have access to your data. In Facebook, go to Settings and choose Apps in the menu to the left. Now you see a list of all apps and sites that have been granted access. Some of them are no doubt legit, for example apps that should be able to post to your wall. But the permissions will stay when you stop using something. And some permissions are only needed on a one-time basis, but they will stay on the list. belongs to that category and should be erased. Go through the list and remove anything you don’t need. If you see something that you don’t understand the meaning of, it’s safest to remove it too. Permissions can always be added back and apps that lose their permissions will notify you and ask you to grant new permissions. Happy cleaning, Micke   [caption id="attachment_8485" align="alignnone" width="300"] This is what it looks like when want's permission to access your data in Facebook.[/caption]   Images: Screenshots from and  

September 21, 2015

Only 10% protected – Interesting study on travelers’ security habits

Kaisu who is working for us is also studying tourism. Her paper on knowledge of and behavior related to information security amongst young travelers was released in May, and is very interesting reading. The world is getting smaller. We travel more and more, and now we can stay online even when travelling. Using IT-services in unknown environments does however introduce new security risks. Kaisu wanted to find out how aware young travelers are of those risks, and what they do to mitigate them. The study contains many interesting facts. Practically all, 95,7%, are carrying a smartphone when travelling. One third is carrying a laptop and one in four a tablet. The most commonly used apps and services are taking pictures, using social networks, communication apps and e-mail, which all are used by about 90% of the travelers. Surfing the web follows close behind at 72%. But I’m not going to repeat it all here. The full story is in the paper. What I find most interesting is however what the report doesn’t state. Everybody is carrying a smartphone and snapping pictures, using social media, surfing the web and communicating. Doesn’t sound too exotic, right? That’s what we do in our everyday life too, not just when travelling. The study does unfortunately not examine the participants’ behavior at home. But I dare to assume that it is quite similar. And I find that to be one of the most valuable findings. Traveling is no longer preventing us from using IT pretty much as we do in our everyday life. I remember when I was a kid long, long ago. This was even before invention of the cellphone. There used to be announcements on the radio in the summer: “Mr. and Mrs. Müller from Germany traveling by car in Lapland. Please contact your son Hans urgently.” Sounds really weird for us who have Messenger, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Skype installed on our smartphones. There was a time when travelling meant taking a break in your social life. Not anymore. Our social life is today to an increasing extent handled through electronic services. And those services goes with us when travelling, as Kaisu’s study shows. So you have access to the same messaging channels no matter where you are on this small planet. But they all require a data connection, and this is often the main challenge. There are basically two ways to get the data flowing when abroad. You can use data roaming through the cellphone’s ordinary data connection. But that is often too expensive to be feasible, so WiFi offers a good and cheap alternative. Hunting for free WiFi has probably taken the top place on the list of travelers’ concerns, leaving pickpockets and getting burnt in the sun behind. Another conclusion from Kaisu’s study is that travelers have overcome this obstacle, either with data roaming or WiFi. The high usage rates for common services is a clear indication of that. But how do they protect themselves when connecting to exotic networks? About 10% are using a VPN and about 20% say they avoid public WiFi. That leaves us with over 70% who are doing something else, or doing nothing. Some of them are using data roaming, but I’m afraid most of them just use whatever WiFi is available, either ignoring the risks or being totally unaware. That’s not too smart. Connecting to a malicious WiFi network can expose you to eavesdropping, malware attacks, phishing and a handful other nasty tricks. It’s amazing that only 10% of the respondents have found the simple and obvious solution, a VPN. It stands for Virtual Private Network and creates a protected “tunnel” for your data through the potentially harmful free networks. Sounds too nerdy? No, it’s really easy. Just check out Freedome. It’s the super-simple way to be among the smart 10%.   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. I recently let go of my old beloved Nokia Lumia. Why? Mainly because I couldn’t use Freedome on it, and I really want the freedom it gives me while abroad.   Image by Moyan Brenn  

August 24, 2015

Forget the personality tests – Ask Facebook instead (Poll)

It’s amazing how advertising can power huge companies. Google has over 57 000 employees and some 66 billion US dollars in revenue. And Facebook with 12 billion and 10 000 employees. These two giants are the best know providers of ad-financed services on the net. And modern advertising is targeted, which means that they must know what the users want to see. Which means that they must know you. Let’s take a closer look at Facebook. We have already written about their advertising preferences and I have been following my data for some time. Part of the data used to target ads is input by yourself, age, gender, hometown, movies you seen etc. But Facebook also analyzes what you do, both in Facebook and on other sites, to find out what you like. It’s obvious how the tracking works inside Facebook itself. Their servers just simply record what links you click. Tracking in the rest of the net is more sinister, it’s described in this earlier post. Your activity record is analyzed and you are assigned to classes of interest, called “Your Ad Preferences” by Facebook. Advertisers can then select classes they want to target, and the ad may be shown to you based on these classes. You can view and manage the list using a page that is fairly well hidden deep in Facebook’s menus. Let’s check your preferences in moment, but first some thoughts about this. Advertising may be annoying, but it is the engine that drives so many “free” services nowadays. So I’m not going to blame Facebook for being ad-financed. I’m not going to blame them for doing targeted ads either. That can in theory be a good thing, you see more relevant ads that potentially can be of value to you. But any targeted ad scheme must be based on data collection, and this is the tricky part. Can we trust Facebook et al. to handle these quite extensive personal profiles and not misuse them for other purposes? It’s also nice that Facebook is somewhat open about this and let you view “Your Ad Preferences” (Note. Not available in all countries.). But that name is really misleading. The name should be “Facebook’s Ad Preferences for You”. Yes, you can view and delete classes, but that gives you a false sense of control. Facebook keeps analyzing what you do and deleted classes will reappear shortly. I made a full clean-up a couple of months ago, but now I have no less than 210 classes of interest again! This is really amazing if you take into account that I block tracking outside of Facebook, so those activities are not contributing. And I have a principle of not clicking ads in any on-line media, including Facebook. And liking commercial pages in a very restrictive manner. But the thing is that Facebook has realized that people dislike ads. “Suggested posts” or “Sponsored posts” are in fact masqueraded ads and any interaction with them will record your interest in the classes they represent. I have to admit that I do click this kind of content regularly. And where did that suicide thing come from? No, I’m fine. I’m not going to jump off a bridge and I’m not worried about any of my dearests’ mental health. I have not interacted with any kind of Facebook content related to suicide. Except that I can’t know that for sure. Facebook tries to give an open and honest image of itself when presenting its Ad Preferences settings and the possibilities to manage them. But this rosy picture is not the full truth. The inner workings of Facebook advertising is in reality a very complex secret system. When you interact with something on Facebook, you have no way of knowing how it affects your profile. Something I have clicked was apparently associated with suicides even if I had no clue about it. Ok, time to take the Facebook personality test. Let’s see what kind of person they think you are. Follow these instructions: Go to Facebook and locate an ad, a “sponsored post” or a “suggested post”. These items should have a cross or a down-arrow in the upper right corner. Click it. Select “Why am I seeing this?” from the pop-up menu. This screen contains some interesting info but proceed to “Manage your ad preferences”. Review the list and come back here to tell us what you think of it. Delete the inappropriate classes. Deleting all may reduce the number of ads you see.   So let’s see what people think about this test’s accuracy:   [polldaddy poll=9023953]   So using Facebook’s Ad Preferences as a personality test may be entertaining, but not very accurate after all. You should probably look elsewhere for a real test. The catch is that you can select what test to take, but not how others collect data about you. Someone else may rely on this test when evaluating you. You have actually granted Facebook the right to share this data with basically anyone. Remember this clause in the agreement that you read and approved before signing up? “We transfer information to vendors, service providers, and other partners who globally support our business, such as providing technical infrastructure services, analyzing how our Services are used, measuring the effectiveness of ads and services, providing customer service, facilitating payments, or conducting academic research and surveys.” You did read it before signing, didn’t you?   Safe surfing, Micke   Image: Screenshot from  

August 13, 2015