Society

Data handling in the digital era

Information tracking and weak protection leaves social media users vulnerable

Whether it be through accepting cookies on a website or agreeing to an app’s terms and services without reading any of the fine print, peoples’ personal data is being collected and stored online. 

Tansin Rahman, a second-year student at the University of Toronto, is concerned about her data being tracked through third-party cookies. “I find it very unnerving because anytime I go on a website, there are these cookies that are tracking you and it doesn’t seem like a big deal,” she says. “I’m not really concerned about reading the terms and conditions of whatever cookies I’ve accepted. I think a lot of people don’t read that, so you don’t know what’s being done with the information they’ve taken from you.”

As a young person looking to expand her network, Rahman wants to interact with other users without having to worry about her personal data being publicly available and potentially mishandled. 

She says that proper data protection should be more heavily enforced. “It’ll definitely make a lot of people feel more safe if they know what’s happening with their data,” she says. “If they have the right to know who’s buying or sharing it, they know who it’s going to and can even ask for their personal data to be deleted.” 

Rahman expresses concern for young people on social media especially. She says that teenagers sometimes think they need as many followers as possible to fit in, but don’t pay attention to data tracking. “For younger people who have tried to find online friends during the pandemic, it’s unsafe for them because they don’t know all the safety precautions or all the dangers out there,” she says. “Protecting your information is more important than the amount of followers you have.” 

When studying Canadian laws about privacy and data for her undergraduate thesis, Keira Chadwick, a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, says that she found two gaps in Canada’s Privacy Act

“Firstly, for users, it’s not really reasonable to expect someone to read 300 pages of legislation to understand what can and can’t be done with their information, especially since we’re so reliant on technology,” Chadwick says. 

The second gap that Chadwick noticed was how personally identifiable information contrasts to publicly available information. “If you look at some of the legislations, they do reference publicly available information but it is a little bit more grainy than what exactly entails publicly available information,” she says.

Chadwick has also studied social media policies for Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and says she is pleasantly surprised with how their data information is presented. She found there are summaries available that are simple and accessible.

While social media platforms do explain how they are using the information they are given, Chadwick says more could be done. “There is a lot available for users, but there is a fine line between what we can reasonably expect someone to do,” she says. “Who really is responsible to have users informed? Is it the user? Is it the government and how they regulate these companies, or is it the companies and how they engage with the users on their platform?” 

By raising the point of accountability on a more corporate level, Aasiya Shaikh, a senior software engineer at Tech Mahindra, says that organizations should be more responsible in ensuring privacy for its users. 

“There should be a committee within the organization so if someone is found guilty of misusing, stealing or selling another user’s personal data, then there would be some sort of accountability through a penalty,” she says. 

Shaikh says that companies should always have consent to share data because not every social media user has the same intentions. “There are the social media users who use it for themselves, and they don’t want their data or photos to be shared or sold to other organizations,” she says. “But some people use social media platforms to help their businesses grow, like Facebook Marketplace for example. In such a case, these people would definitely want their data and posts to be public to maximize the number of viewers.” 

To protect data on an individual level, Chadwick recommends that social media users use the information available to them. 

“Take a look at some of the policies and the privacy policies that exist on these companies’ websites when you’re engaging in the platform, because they really do explain exactly what’s going on with your information,” she says.

While checking policies is a good step to take before using a certain site or app, Shaikh notes that there is more work to be done at a higher level.  “I believe that there should be a consensus between these organizations with their customers,” she says. “To which they would act accordingly.”

About the author

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Khaleda is a reporter for Youth Mind. If she's not daydreaming of owning a bookstore cafe, she's most likely pining over pretty classic book covers.

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