Social Media and Social Network Privacy

How does privacy work on social media and social networks?

Privacy on social media is a rather delicate balancing act.  On the one hand, the idea behind social media is to put yourself out there and share interests and things in common so that you can make friends.  On the other hand, social networks are relatively public forums, and so there are sometimes ways for people to see certain content that may have been intended to be private.

For example, many social networks allow you to control who can see your original posts, such as how Facebook does:

While this is useful, it's by no means foolproof, since someone who was supposed to see your content can potentially share it with someone who wasn't supposed to see it.  And, like many other websites, social networks themselves can track your activity while using them, and use the information that they collect on you to show you certain posts and advertisements while hiding others.  See our Privacy Policies article to learn how this is spelled out for you in the privacy policies of websites, and our Case Study: Facebook Privacy Policy article for an example of how it's spelled out on a social network like Facebook.

Anyway, in addition to taking some of the privacy precautions that we went over in our Tracking and Sale of Internet Usage Data article, here are some extra things to think about when trying to protect your privacy while using social media.

Tips for staying private on social media and social networks

1. Remember: once your information is shared, you aren't in control of it anymore.

This is the number one thing to remember on social media.  Even if you restrict who can see the original content that you post on social media, many social networks have the ability for people to copy and share content that someone else has posted.  So, someone could potentially see something that you post that you intended to be private, and easily share it with other people whom they know (whether you know them or not).  Those people could share your information with people whom they know, and so on.

Few social networks have settings that restrict this sharing activity, and you often aren't allowed to delete these copied posts (since you aren't the one who made them).  This makes information posted on social media virtually impossible to erase, so think carefully before you post it in the first place.

2. Don't post any optional information if you're not comfortable doing so.

Some personal information is necessary on most social networks, such as your email address, birthday, or real name.  This is largely to prevent people from abusing these types of websites by repeatedly creating fake accounts and using them to harass others.

Many other types of information are not mandatory and are simply used to help people get to know you better.  However, this information can sometimes be seen by people whom you didn't intend to see it, and by companies that track your data to sell you advertisements or show you certain posts instead of others. 

Remember, you're by-and-large in control of whether or not your information makes it onto the Internet in the first place.  As a general rule of thumb, if you don't have to post information about yourself, and you wouldn't feel comfortable telling someone this information at a party attended by friends and strangers alike, then don't put it on social media.

3.  Use the privacy settings that are available on a social network.

While they're nowhere near a guarantee, privacy settings on social networks can help to keep your information away from people who aren't supposed to see it.  For example, on Facebook, you can choose to make your posts visible by the public, by only your "friends" (i.e. people you've connected with), or just by you.  You can even sort your "friends" into categories, and make certain posts visible by some categories of people and not others.  Or, on Twitter, you can force people to request to connect with you (which you can allow or reject), and only show your posts to people whom you're connected with.

4. Don't make yourself a target for negative attention.

It's okay to have disagreements and perhaps give a bit of constructive criticism from time to time.  However, don't go out of your way to insult, criticize, put down, or offend other people on social media.  Remember, they can easily share what you post with their friends to show everyone what a jerk you are, and then people may start feeding your nasty behaviour back to you.

And even if you think you're hiding behind an anonymous user name, there are often hints that you leave on social media that can let people figure out who you really are.  Some may even use your online behaviour to get you in trouble in real life with your employer, or even the police.  So the best policy is to treat everyone you meet on social media with as much courtesy and respect as possible.

5.  If you have something private to say, consider alternate channels.

If you really need to say something privately to someone, you probably shouldn't do so over social media.  Granted, there are some private messaging and chat tools on social networks that allow you to communicate privately with other users, but you should probably only use these if you don't know the person well enough to know some other contact details about them.  If the person is familiar enough to you that you know another way to reach them, consider sending them an email or having a phone call with them instead.

Private social networks

Certain people believe that major social networks — such as Facebook and Twitter — have tipped the privacy balance too far towards catering to advertisers and other snoopers at the expense of keeping your personal information and interactions manageable.  Some of these people have decided to do something about that by creating their own social networks with better privacy features, such as:

  • Not tracking your activity

  • Not forcing you to use your real name

  • Not showing you advertisements

  • Not giving any information that you provide them with to anyone else

  • Limiting the number of people whom you can connect with

  • Creating miniature social networks that run on independent server computers

Some of the more well-known private social networks include:


And that's a brief guide to protecting your privacy on social media and social networks!

Tracking and Sale of Internet Data

Imagine if someone — or even several people — followed you around all day, every day, with a video recorder.  They recorded everything that you did, from when you woke up in the morning to what you had for breakfast to what you just bought at your supermarket to where you worked.  Then, they occasionally offered suggestions on things that you might want to buy, or used their mobile phones to call someone else and tell them about everything they've seen.

Every time you use your web browser to go somewhere on the Internet, this is sort of what happens.  Websites, corporations, and data collection companies use invisible background programs to track your online activity, from what websites you log into to what terms you type into a search engine to what you buy on shopping websites.  They use this information to build a virtual profile of who you are, and then sell this profile to advertisers, companies looking to hire, or even health or insurance providers.

The trade-off is that many of the websites that track you offer you some sort of service for free.  Google, for example, offers its search engine, an email client (Gmail), and an online suite of office software (Google Docs) all without you having to pay for them.  Is that a fair trade?  We'll leave that to you to decide.

How is my Internet activity being tracked?

There are a couple of different ways that companies can track your activity online.  These include:

  • Cookies: These are small files that websites put on your computer as reminders of where you've been and what you've done on the Internet.  Some are useful and make using websites easier or possible, but others are intrusive and track your habits.  See our What are Cookies article for more information.

  • IP address: When your computer connects to the Internet, it's given a unique number that distinguishes it from every other computer on the Internet.  Websites that you connect to can see this address, and can use parts of it to figure out what country, region, or even city you live in.

  • User-agent strings: These are lines of computer code that identify what program you're using to connect to the Internet or World Wide Web.  Using these, trackers can tell what type of browser you're using (e.g. Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and so on).

  • Cache:  Your cache contains copies of files on a website that your computer stores.  It makes it easier to load web pages by simply loading the stored files (if this is possible) instead of asking for them directly from the web page's server.  However, the contents of your cache can reveal where you've been on the Internet, and — if your cache contains multiple versions of the same web page — how long ago you've been there.  See our What is a Cache and Internet Browsing History article to learn more.

How can I tell if my Internet activity is being tracked?

There are certain clues that will tell you whether or not a website is tracking your online activity.  For example, they may have a clause in their privacy policy or terms of use that says that by using the website, you agree to let them collect information about how you use it.  (See our Privacy Policies article for more information.)  Take, for example, this snippet from Google's privacy policy:

Another indicator that you may be being tracked is when a website says that they use cookies to "enhance the performance of the website" or something like that, and that by using the website, you're allowing them to install cookies on your computer.  You'll see messages like this on YouTube, for example:

Other than that, it's somewhat difficult to tell when you are or aren't being tracked on the Internet. Most tracking activity is done by behind-the-scenes programs that work without your knowledge or explicit consent (i.e. you're agreeing to let them work by simply using a website). 

There are some places where you won't be tracked (or at least as heavily tracked), such as when you're logging into accounts or inputting other sensitive information (e.g. when you're doing online banking).  However, as a general rule: if in doubt, always assume that you're being tracked on the Internet.

How can I avoid being tracked on the Internet?

Fortunately, as awareness increases regarding the amount of tracking activity that happens on the Internet, certain companies and organizations have begun offering services that help people keep their online activity private.  Some options include:

  • Web browser add-ons:  Certain web browsers now have options or extra features (usually free) that tell websites not to put information on your computer that could be used to track you.  They don't always work, but they're better than nothing.  Some browsers also have add-ons that can fool websites into thinking that you use a different browser, which makes you harder to track.

  • Private search engines: In response to the tracking practices of the "big three" search engines (Google Search, Yahoo Search, and Bing), some search engines have been created that do not track you.  They sometimes piggyback off of larger search engines, but they do not store your IP address or the terms that you search for.  There are other websites besides certain search engines that do not track your activity, as well.

    For more on private search engines and a list of some of the more popular ones, see our Private Search Engines article.

  • IP spoofing:  There are some programs or websites that can allow you to temporarily modify your computer's IP address.  This messes with systems that analyze your IP address to tell where you are in the world, and can make it seem like you're connecting to the Internet from a completely different country.  This can really throw Internet trackers off your trail.

    See our IP Spoofing article for more on what this practice is, and some ways to do it.

  • Proxy websites:  These websites allow you to browse the Internet by funneling your activity through them.  This means that most of what you do on these websites only gets tracked back to the proxy website, and not to you as an individual user.

  • Private web browsers and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs):  These are programs that combine IP spoofing with the functions of proxy websites (and even some browser add-ons) for an all-in-one private Internet experience.  They modify your IP address so that trackers don't know where you're connecting to the Internet from, and use a fake server to connect you to websites so that your activity can't be traced back to you as an individual person.

    Private web browsers are different from simply using "private mode" in more common web browsers.  To find out how, see our Private Web Browsers article.


There!  Now you know that these information-tracking practices happen on the Internet, how (to know if) you're being tracked, and what steps you can take to keep your online activity private.

Privacy Policies

What is a privacy policy?

A privacy policy is a document that a website writes up to inform its users how it handles any personal information that is collected from users of the website, or which users enter into the website.  There are two main elements to a privacy policy: 

  • It explains how the website will protect the privacy of its users by not collecting, keeping, or sharing certain personal information. 

  • It makes the user aware of what kinds of personal information will be collected or asked for from the website, whether it will be shared or not, and — if it is to be shared — with whom. 

Why are privacy policies important?

Many people don't take the time to read website privacy policies, as many of them are long and filled with hard-to-understand legal terms.  In fact, some people just assume that their personal information won't be shared by a website simply because it has a privacy policy.  Unfortunately, as we just explained, many privacy policies are as much (or more) about what a website will do with any information that it gets from you as they are about what a website won't do with your information.

Understanding what a privacy policy does and doesn't allow a website to do with respect to your personal information helps you to make an informed decision about your privacy on the Internet.  If you feel that a website's privacy policy gives it too much leeway to intrude into your personal life, you may want to consider using another website that has a stricter privacy policy.  Or, you may want to use some of the strategies and tools from other articles in this course to protect your privacy yourself, instead of expecting other websites to do it for you.

Things to be aware of in a privacy policy

We realize that we just mentioned that many privacy policies are difficult to read because they are lengthy and filled with legal-speak.  However, you can make them slightly easier to digest — and gauge how well they will actually protect your privacy — by asking a few key questions. 

10 questions to ask while reading a privacy policy

  • What information does the website require me to provide in order to use it?

  • Does the website collect any information from me besides what is required to use it?

  • By merely using the website, am I consenting to the website being able to collect information from me?

  • What reason or reasons does the website give for collecting or requiring certain types of information from me (e.g. "deliver our services", "improve my experience", etc.)?

  • Does the website share, sell, or trade any of the information that it collects from me with anyone else?

  • If the website shares, sells, or trades my information, with whom do they do so?  (Their partner services?  Advertisers?  The government?  Law enforcement?  Other groups?)

  • When does the website release my information to anyone else?  (Never?  When they're required to by law?  When they fear that their own — or someone else's — well-being is at stake?  Whenever they want?)

  • How long does the website keep any information that it collects from me?  (30 days?  90 days?  A year?  Until I close my account or otherwise request that they get rid of it?  As long as they are required to by law?  Until they deem that it's no longer useful to them?)

  • Does the website actually delete any information that they collect from me (whether I request it or they do so in keeping with their privacy policy), or do they simply remove any parts of it that could personally identify me?

  • Does the website allow any other groups, besides themselves, to collect information from me while I use their website?  If so, what are the privacy policies of these groups?

Skim over a privacy policy, and see how many of these questions you can find an answer to.  If you don't like the answers that you find, consider taking steps to independently protect your privacy.  You may even not want to use the website at all, and find a more privacy-wise alternative instead.

If you'd like an example of how to read a privacy policy by using these questions as a guideline, check out our Case Study: Facebook Privacy Policy article.


Anyway, that's a brief introduction to privacy policies!

What is Internet Privacy?

What is online privacy?

There are certain things that people do in order to not have anyone else know what they're doing on the Internet.  Some are simple, while others are more complex.  They include:

  • Identifying themselves only with a generic name or some other impersonal piece of information

  • Not posting certain personal information about themselves on websites

  • Deleting records on their web browser or computer of where they've been on the Internet

  • Setting their web browser to not track where they go on the Internet

  • Using websites that do not track their activity, or installing programs that prevent tracking

  • Using web browsers or other programs that create fake Internet addresses for their computer

It's true that certain people abuse these conventions in order to conduct crimes or bully people online.  However, many of these tricks are being used by more people every day to protect themselves online, by making sure that their Internet activity is nobody else's business.  This keeps them from being harassed by cyber-stalkers, bombarded with online advertisements, or even censored by their government.

Why is privacy online important?

Internet privacy is important generally because people don't realize how much of their activity online is public or can be tracked.  However, recent events have made the general public more aware of who can see what they do on the Internet: individuals, companies, and even government agencies.  We'll explain more below.

Individual surveillance

Rightly or wrongly, there are certain people on the Internet who make a habit of tracking what other people do.  For instance, certain businesses look potential employees up on the Internet to see what kind of person they are, including if they have any bad habits that could result in the company's image being tarnished.

There are other people who may take offense at something that someone says on the Internet.  In response, they may decide to get revenge by shaming or otherwise humiliating that person.  They may spread what the person said among their circle of friends, even if it was said in a supposedly private context.  They may even go out of their way to find and share the person's personal information.  In rare cases, they may decide to personally harass the person with threats and other forms of emotional abuse.

The bulk of these sorts of things happen on social networks, which makes maintaining your privacy on these types of websites extremely important.

Corporate surveillance

Many websites that offer their services "for free" have a stipulation in their policies that, in exchange for using their services, they are allowed to track what you do on the Internet.  If you don't want to be tracked, they say, then don't use their websites.

For example, you use Google Search to find a website that lets you book travel accommodations for your next vacation.  Then, you use Google Search again to find your bank's website, so that you can transfer some money over to your credit card in order to pay for your trip.  Then the next website you visit shows you advertisements like these:

What in the world… why are you seeing ads for things that you just did on the Internet?  The answer is that, by using certain websites and clicking certain hyperlinks, you're generating information that companies like Google and Facebook can collect.  They then sell that information to advertising agencies, which then use it to display certain advertisements to people on certain websites, based on the specific person's browsing activities. 

Government surveillance

There are some governments around the world that are very interested in what their citizens do online.  Many of these countries have agencies that track where people go on the Internet and what they do there, looking for "suspicious" or "immoral" activity.  Some governments even have systems in place that actually block people from going to certain websites.

Privacy on the Internet is of utmost importance for people who live in these countries.  It allows them to do certain things online — such as watching a funny video clip, reading newspapers from around the world, or chatting with their friends on social media — that we might take for granted, yet are forbidden in the country where they live.


Now that you know about some of the ways that people protect their privacy on the Internet — and some legitimate reasons why they do so — it's time for you to learn how to be privacy-wise online.  We'll go over some general privacy-related things on the Internet to be aware of, including website policies and targeted advertising practices.  Then, we'll teach you some basic and advanced methods of staying private on the Internet, and explain why doing these things protects your online privacy.  Lastly, we'll go over some of the neat technologies that help keep your online life strictly your own business.