Is “The Algorithm” A Threat to Data Privacy?

April 16, 2024

Do you know about…the algorithm?

No, it’s not some terrifying creature or horror movie villain. When people talk about “the algorithm,” they’re referring to the social media phenomenon which personalizes your feed with videos, pictures and posts that you might like. This is based on content that you’ve viewed, how long you spend on the media they’ve suggested, and what people who share your demographics enjoy.

Some social media platforms show you posts chronologically. Others use the algorithm to recommend you stuff you’ll like and show you less of what you don’t want to see.

These social media algorithms, while offering convenience and personalization, can pose significant dangers to data privacy in other ways…

In order to effectively recommend content that will appeal to you, these applications and platforms must collect a certain amount of data from you, and this data necessarily includes information far beyond the necessary cookies.

For a quick refresher…

“Cookies are small text files that websites save on your computer or mobile device when you visit them. They are used to remember your preferences, such as your language or font size, and to track your browsing activity across different websites.”

Algorithms go beyond just your posts and likes, collecting data on browsing history, location, device information, and even seemingly innocuous things like how long you spend looking at a post. This paints a detailed picture of your interests, habits and personality. In the wrong hands, that would be everything a skilled phisher would need to execute a social engineering attack against you!

Sometimes, you can circumvent this problem by browsing the website without creating an account; you can download and view TikToks without signing up, for example. Even if you don’t have an account on a platform, however, data brokers and third-party apps can still collect information about you from your friends’ profiles and activities by creating what’s known as a “shadow profile” without your knowledge or consent.

Meanwhile, it’s often unclear how your data is used, shared, or sold; platforms may offer limited options for controlling your privacy settings or opting out of data collection altogether. Who has access to it? Can you limit third parties from seeing or buying that data? At the same time, the vast amount of data collected in those databases is vulnerable to hacking and breaches, potentially exposing tons of sensitive personal information on all the users of that platform…including you!

Algorithms personalize content based on your data, which can be convenient and fun…but this also creates “filter bubbles” that echo your existing beliefs and limit exposure to diverse viewpoints. This can lead to confirmation bias and hinder critical thinking.

There’s also the concern that algorithms self-learn based on inputted data from humans, thus their foundational knowledge could be biased or incorrect. The so-called poisoned AI algorithms can perpetuate discrimination by amplifying content that reinforces existing prejudices or unfairly targeting ads and opportunities based on factors like race, gender or socioeconomic status. Instead of seeing all sides to a problem, you’ll just keep getting inundated by videos that validate and exacerbate your viewpoint.

All of this is simply to say: Open yourself to other opinions and be careful if it seems like you’re following the algorithm down a so-called rabbit hole.

These are just some of the dangers posed by social media algorithms to data privacy. Making yourself aware of these risks is the first and most important step toward protecting your data privacy.

Keep yourself safe from The Algorithm:

  • Review and adjust your privacy settings regularly.
  • Be mindful of the information you share online.
  • Use privacy-focused tools, browsers and extensions.
  • Stay informed about data privacy issues and advocate for stronger regulations.

Remember, you do have control over your data and your online experience. By understanding the risks and taking proactive steps, you can minimize the dangers posed by social media algorithms to your privacy. If a website wants too much information from you, you can walk away!

Data privacy is one of the most hotly debated and legislated topics in cybersecurity today. The more you know about the state of your online anonymity, the better choices you can make to have the best and safest web experience possible.

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