Third-party apps and Facebook: how to ensure your privacy

The recent revelation that profile information was harvested by a data analytics firm in the run-up to the 2016 American presidential election has shaken Facebook. The social network was specifically implicated through a third-party personality quiz app that Cambridge Analytica used to gather information about users. Since the information was made public, Facebook has explicitly stated that it isn’t responsible for the harvesting of its users’ information, as users gave the app permission to do so when signing up to do the quiz.

The story has again highlighted the importance of making sure what you agree to when you sign up for anything online. Unfortunately, the average internet user doesn’t usually read through all the terms and conditions when signing up for online services, and most of us will admit that we usually just scroll down and click “agree”, without giving thought to what exactly we are agreeing to.

What are third-party applications?

While most of us are aware of the fact that we share some personal information with social media networks like Facebook when we sign up, third-party apps are something many people know very little about.

Put simply, third-party apps are developed by someone other than the developer of the platform they are being used on. For instance, most apps available on Apple and Google’s app stores were not developed by Apple or Google themselves, but were developed for use on these platforms by third parties.

Similarly, a host of apps are developed for use on or through Facebook. The app used by Cambridge Analytica was a personality quiz, very much along the lines of those you usually see trending on Facebook, that supposedly reveal something about yourself (does “Which character from Friends are you?” or “What will I look like in 30 years?” sound familiar?).

In the case of the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting, using terms like “data breach” is not exactly fair, as every person whose information was used gave their consent when they signed up for the app.

Mobile and other apps often give users the option to sign in using their Facebook account. Many people choose this option because it’s more convenient than creating a new account with a new password, but don’t realise that they also give said apps permission to use information that they gather from a user’s Facebook account. This might include things like username and ID, full name, profile picture, gender, networks a user belongs to, and in some cases, even access to the profiles of friends. The extent of information that is shared can be found in the terms and conditions of an app, but as previously mentioned, very few people ever read those.

How can you disable third-party apps on Facebook?

You’d be surprised at the amount of third-party apps that you have used by signing in with Facebook. In an era where privacy is perhaps more important than ever, acquainting yourself with what you are sharing is step one.

To see what third-party apps you have used with Facebook, go to the settings of your Facebook account. If you’re using the mobile app or the desktop version, you’ll find settings on the top-right side of the screen in the drop-down menu.

From there, select “Apps” – on desktop, this will be an option on the left side of your screen, and on mobile, you can just scroll down until you see it. Now you will see a list of all the apps you have given access to your Facebook profile to.

To revoke an app’s access, click on the “X” in the right-hand corner, and select “Remove”. It is important to note that revoking access will only stop an app from getting any new information on you, although the app will still have access to information that you have previously shared.

Final thoughts

If you want to limit the information you share with Facebook even further, there are some extra steps you can take.

A small piece of JavaScript code called the Facebook Pixel is always tracking your browsing activity and telling Facebook what information you’re accessing when you’re not using Facebook or other Facebook-owned sites (like Instagram) or apps.

To stop Facebook from tracking what you browse on the web, sign out of Facebook when you browse elsewhere. Alternatively, only use Facebook when using your browser’s “incognito” or “private” browsing mode, and remember to clear your browsing data once you’ve logged out.

Social networks have become a very important part of connecting with friends and business associates, and there are certainly disadvantages when you have no presence on social media at all. With that being said, it is just as important to be informed about what information can be shared unwittingly, and to take active steps to make sure you only share what you want to.

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