As privacy concerns grow, users remain hooked on Facebook

When Jennifer Keenan Giliberto joined Facebook in 2008, she was thrilled to connect with old classmates from high school and college.

She was 33, living in Alpharetta and often wondered where her high school classmates in Connecticut had landed, as well as college friends from Pennsylvania and Indiana. It was virtually impossible to keep track of job changes, relocations, marriages and name changes.

Suddenly, thanks to Facebook, she was reconnecting almost overnight with childhood friends, old neighbors, former Lacrosse teammates, digitally catching up and filling in the gaps of their lives.

“It was a great time in our lives to reconnect and share,” Keenan Giliberto said.

But in recent years, the now 43-year-old mom has cooled on Facebook, a platform which now has 2 billion active users around the globe. Facebook has also become saturated with more content, including political rants, fake news, argumentative posts, and yes ads. The negativity made her want to turn away from the social media giant.

Then came recent revelations that Facebook let a data mining firm collect user data that was used to try and influence the 2016 presidential election.

This past week, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress, millions of users found out on their Facebook pages if their personal information had been compromised by the data firm Cambridge Analytica.

Keenan Giliberto believes Facebook clearly crossed a line in handling personal information, but she’s not leaving.

For millions of users, the social networking platform is so woven into the daily fabric of their lives, that leaving Facebook hardly seems like a feasible option.

From birthdays to job announcements to sharing vacation photos, Facebook, in one just decade, has changed the way people socialize and communicate. Not only are people wedded to personal pages, many depend on school, neighborhood, family and other Facebook pages for vital information.

Individuals know much more about people around them than ever before. And now so do others, including those with ill intentions.

RELATED: This Facebook tool reveals whether Cambridge Analytica has your data

Ramnath Chellappa, an associate dean and academic director in the Business Analytics Program at Emory University, doesn't expect Facebook users to flee the platform or even change their behaviors. That's because the Cambridge Analytica scandal has affected people on a broad, society level, not on a personal level.

“People have expressed moral outrage,” he said. “But there’s this indifference because people are not individually affected. They didn’t get their identity stolen. They didn’t see their credit score go down.”

Even so, Chellappa said, these latest Facebook revelations should not be taken lightly.

That “user data has been used to influence the world’s oldest democracy should be enough on an institutional level to do something about it,” he said. “The solution is not to shut all of these things down.”

Facebook CEO Zuckerberg acknowledges he made a “huge mistake” in not focusing enough on protecting users’ privacy and countering disinformation campaigns. He also conceded before congressional panels that Facebook failed to take a broad enough view of its responsibility in the world.

The personal information of up to 87 million users, mostly in the United States, may have been improperly shared with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Much of the exposure is linked to the “This is Your Digital Life” app, a personality quiz. The app not only swept up the data of people who took it, but also data from their friends. In recent days, Facebook has been notifying people who logged in to this app.

Meanwhile, the privacy scandal has opened the door to users downloading files to see what Facebook knows, and assumes about them – and the harvesting of personal details goes far beyond what many could imagine — photos of their family and friends, locations they’ve visited, posts that may reveal their political ideology, search queries they’ve typed into Facebook, and much much more.

When Brian X. Chen, lead consumer technology writer for The New York Times, downloaded a copy of his Facebook data recently, he didn't expect to see much. He said his profile is sparse, he rarely posts anything on the site, and seldom clicks on ads.

In a piece he wrote for the Times, Chen said opening his file was like opening Pandora’s box.

“With a few clicks, I learned that about 500 advertisers — many that I had never heard of, like Bad Dad, a motorcycle parts store, and Space Jesus, an electronica band — had my contact information, which could include my email address, phone number and full name,” Chen wrote. “Facebook also had my entire phone book, including the number to ring my apartment buzzer. The social network had even kept a permanent record of the roughly 100 people I had deleted from my friends list over the last 14 years, including my exes.”

Experts say the debacle highlights another big problem that can be better controlled: Users download apps and allow companies to collect information about them without a second thought. They post personal information, including announcing to Facebook (and the world) they are going on vacation. By listing dates of absence, (addresses are often listed on profiles), users are basically informing others that their home will be unattended and, therefore, an easy target for a break-in.

Most don’t even fully understand how Facebook works.

“First question: How much do you pay for Facebook? Zero. They make their money by data sharing. They gather information like what you eat for breakfast. We have this mistaken notion about privacy,” Chellappa said. “We also know the average consumer is not reading the privacy policy and doesn’t understand what this information sharing can do.”

And while you may post something and move on, Facebook holds onto every piece of information.

“Why should a friend two years from now know I was upset with them two years earlier? Even the friend will forget about it by then,” Chellappa said. “But not Facebook.”

Experts say there are some simple steps users can take to help limit the amount of data Facebook collects.

To start, change privacy settings from public to private. Denish Shah, associate professor of marketing at the Georgia State University's J. Mack Robinson College of Business, also suggests avoiding third party apps, such as the glamour app that turns any photo into a glam shot. It may seem like a silly game, but it's also a ploy to develop a psychological profile for advertisers.

Experts say when users visit another website with their Facebook page open — maybe to peruse at shoes or stainless refrigerators — Facebook can track that data.

For David Ryan Polgar, co-host of Funny as Tech (a podcast and live panel that tackles thorny issues in tech), one of the biggest takeaways from Zuckerberg's testimony is the notion that Facebook and other social media are "free."

Facebook generated about $40 billion in revenue last year, with about 98 percent coming from advertising.

“Every piece of info about who we are, our likes, activities, and whereabouts are extremely valuable insights that advertisers are hungry for,” Polgar said.

Shah said even his tech savvy students are surprised, even aghast, when he tells them how much information Facebook has on them. Shah said the onus of responsibility to simplify privacy settings and better protect consumers falls on Facebook, and the government can be a watchdog to oversee it. He said Facebook needs to be more transparent about how the information collected is being used.

Keenan Giliberto, a professional photographer, has scaled back her engagement on Facebook less because of privacy concerns and more about wanting to reign in her time plugged into social media. She has been more mindful of her time on Facebook especially since her oldest child, Tucker, is a teenager and also engaged in social media. And even though Tucker and other young people are less likely to join Facebook in favor of Snapchat or Instagram (owned by Facebook), they too face privacy issues with information shared on those platforms.

“It’s difficult to sit down with your teenager and talk about balance and you shouldn’t care how many people are following you on Snapchat when you are spending hours scrolling on your own Facebook page,” Keenan Giliberto said.

In January, she deleted the Facebook app from her iPhone. She only checks Facebook on her desktop computer at home and once a day.

Amy Moore, a 43-year-old scientist who lives in Decatur, was not overly surprised or disturbed by revelations about Facebook.

“I think it’s one of those innovations that has changed the world, for better and for worse,” Moore, who works at Emory University, responded by e-mail.

“Do I anticipate deleting my Facebook account? No,” she wrote. “Perhaps I should be horrified that my data could have been compromised, but I don’t personally believe that I have been ‘manipulated’ negatively. I use it as a platform to stay connected with friends and family who are spread around the country and world — I’m not sure what would fill that void if Facebook went away. Another similar platform would come along, and the issues and challenges would likely be the same.”

Moore, a prolific poster, uses Facebook to post family photos, share news articles, and to make funny, witty commentary about her life. As a scientist with expertise in virology and cancer research, she shares information about vaccines and other research.

“One positive outcome of that is people view me as trustworthy and they ask my questions about vaccines, cancer treatment or other things because they know I will give them the answers or find out,” she said.

At the same time, it’s not all good. The ugly political discourse, the way social media can be used to bully.

“Don’t get me wrong — at times, I wonder if the world would be better off had Facebook and other social media platforms not developed,” Moore said. “The beast has been unleashed. Can it be tamed? I don’t know.”

Facebook Privacy Tips: How to share without oversharing

Facebook’s privacy settings are in a state of flux right now given the fallout from Cambridge Analytica. As a company, Facebook is promising to offer users greater control over their privacy and to make the privacy setting tools more transparent and intuitive.

David Ryan Polgar, founder of the All Tech Is Human initiative, which seeks to better align the business interests of tech with the human interests of users and society, shares 10 steps to better protect your privacy on Facebook. Polgar, who lives in Connecticut but works primarily in New York City is also a tech writer and speaker, along with co-host of Funny as Tech (a podcast and live panel show that tackles the thorniest issues in tech).

1. Check your privacy settings often.

Download a copy of your Facebook data so you can see what advertisers might see.

2. Don't use your Facebook sign-in to enter into other apps like Spotify or Amazon. When you connect an app to Facebook, you are often required to give that app permissions to view information about your profile. This happens any time you log in with Facebook on another site, ranging from shopping sites like Amazon to tools, music and media streaming services, quizzes, surveys, and games.

3. Don't do those apps that make you answer all sorts of questions about your personality, or face swapping apps etc. They're developing a psychological profile of you to better advertise to you.

4. Don't join those memes where you're sharing information like the street you grew up on, your first pet's name, the city you grew up in, and the like – those are questions that often are answers to security questions for your bank and other important accounts. You're giving away all sorts of personal information.

5. Use a different email for Facebook than you use for anything else. Don't use your work or personal e-mail. If you use one just for Facebook, it's not connected to any other accounts, so it can't be harvested to help log into anything else I use. It's so easy to get a zillion throwaway email addresses – Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail, etc. Just create a new one and make that the only email address you have connected to Facebook.

6. Don’t include personal information on your profile such as your address and birthday.

7. Think before you Like. Every time you "like" a product, service, or public person on Facebook you are helping advertisers understand who you are.

8. Do not think of Facebook just as, Messenger, or your mobile app. Facebook owns popular apps Instagram and WhatsApp, which share a privacy policy under "Facebook Services."

9. You are bound by Facebook's terms of service, even though the vast majority of people click Accept without reading. You can read Facebook's terms of service here:

10. Think of your privacy/data as a currency. No social media platform is "free." You are paying for the service in exchange to access to your data.