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Our generation is the first to have grown up with social media technology. Many individuals are accustomed to sharing everything about their days – from photos of food and family members to political opinions – on popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr. All this data adds up over time, and the accumulated information allows both government and corporate entities to construct a highly detailed picture of what makes you, you.

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Unless you’re completely removed from the grid (and for those reading this article, the chances of that are slim), your life is an open book in this brave new world of total information. While a large portion of this data is public record, people also voluntarily post vast amounts of data about themselves to the Internet under the presumption that it will remain within their circle of ‘friends’ or followers.

However, according to Taha Yasseri, an Iranian computer scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute, social media is the perfect tool to monitor today’s societies. “The transparency and easy use of social media has made it a very good tool for social activists. But this makes it a very good opportunity for authoritarian states to monitor, and eventually even to predict behavior.” Corporations target Internet users to market goods and services more productively, while governments tune in to look for evidence of suspicious illegal activity. Some people may feel comfortable being monitored in this way, but for many, these actions go beyond courteous boundaries and begin to overstep the broader social contract.

The Long Arm of the Law

Local police departments track known criminals’ activities. One of the first to do so was the Cincinnati, Ohio, Police Department. They were able to stop a massive gang-related brawl following comments on social media about the location of the event and identifying key players. Many police departments are using real-time, location-based social listening software, like Snaptrends, so that they can more effectively monitor what is happening in communities across the U.S.  

Of course, the federal government also has interests in social media activity. The FBI has sought to buy the Geofeedia social media monitoring platform which lets them hone in on goings on in certain geographical locations. This platform also allows the FBI to insert comments into those feeds when they think it is useful. This document, from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, further shows how the government contextualizes the use of social media tools in regards to mapping relationships, locating subjects, and proving or disproving alibis.

As some may already know, the Department of Homeland Security regularly monitors all conversations on social media for a list of keywords that they feel that terrorists may use. Recent activities have gone far beyond capturing terrorists, however, to watching the Black Lives Matter movement, a breast cancer fundraising walk, and the National Moment of Silence.

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How Corporations Capture Data

As the number of digital devices connected to the “Internet of Things” continues to increase at an ever-expanding rate, the cloud is providing a mind-boggling array of opportunities for businesses to gain new competitive advantages. As information is harvested from our digital lives, it is utilized to reveal important correlations that then translate into a more efficient use of advertising dollars.

Inside ‘Big Data’ is a collection of tools and techniques that make it possible to examine data at any scale. The rise of ‘smart home’ security systems and sophisticated sensor technologies have created a microcosmic example of this phenomenon, in which your home preferences are directly used to enhance your comfort via the data collected on your daily comings and goings. The embedded intelligent database in these systems is capable of empowering real-time analytics to delegate real-world results.

Even with data coming from billions of connected devices, an enterprise-grade database at the corporate level can infer meaningful results. A popular program that many corporations use to monitor what people are saying about their products is Brandwatch, which helps corporations keep tabs on over 800 different Internet sites for mentions of their business. While some consumers are receptive to the thought of businesses offering personalized discounts, more than 75 percent are uncomfortable with the thought of them analyzing their social media posts to make recommendations based on “likes” or visual uploads like photos or video.  

Chart Your Data Destiny

There are several steps that you can take to control who has access to what you post on the Internet. Start by creating a strong password and changing it often. If you have a school or work email address, avoid using those to sign up on social media, as they may appear on other pages and make it easier for someone to hack your account. Take control over your accounts to the best of your ability by monitoring what others are allowed to see. Install and keep antivirus and security software up to date on all your devices to protect them from malicious attacks which may make your information more vulnerable. 

But even with all technological precautions in place, you still need to manage your online risks. Consider who you connect with carefully, as their unsavory online behaviors could implicate you as well. Also, keep in mind that the HR departments of companies are very interested in what you’re posting too. If your friend was just fired, then you might want to avoid their social media sites because your employer may want to see who else might have been involved in an incident or just to learn who they may want to observe carefully at work. Keep in mind that you must not share corporate intellectual property online. Likewise, never assume that what you post online will not be read by your employer. Remember that whatever goes online is now out of your hands and therefore out of your control. Even in today’s digital world, it’s smart to keep some semblance of an analog persona intact. 

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