How to Stop Social Media Data Collection

Posted on Dec 9, 2022 by Devaang Jain

As a digital native, chances are, you’re somewhat aware that companies are mining your social media data. Social networks have gone as far as to determine political preferences based on our activity, and have used this kind of information in unexpected ways. The Cambridge Analytica and Facebook episode demonstrated that people’s votes can be influenced by carefully orchestrated social media campaigns. 

Every social media platform collects and stores your information, including highly sensitive data, like what products you buy, and what other sites you visit in your browser. In an age where people are fast losing control over their own digital identities, the big question is, where does social media data collection begin and where does this all end? And is there something you can really do to turn the tables?

What is Social Media Data (and What’s the Big Deal)?

Social media can unlock many secrets about our lives; what’s worrying is how much lies in the public domain for anyone to see. 

Every single thing we do on any social platform creates a digital trail. Our likes, comments, posts, follows, shares, chats, and reviews all express our personal biases, behaviors, and preferences. Social media companies harvest this information and then use it for their own purposes or sell it to companies who want to better understand their consumers. 

Facebook made over $110 billion from ads in 2021, and there’s no telling how much they got from the companies they traded/sold research to. How does one increase their ROI with social media data? Simple: they create content, products, and initiatives that match our preferences.

Even Reddit has ads. That’s what I get for looking up analytics and online courses.

Social media information can be incredibly difficult to trace and maintain control over. Just to show you how convoluted the situation is, in many cases, the only way to control access to your data would be to abstain from using a social network at all. 

You probably realize how social media platforms monetize your data. If you’ve been looking up shampoos on Google, chances are, you’re seeing too many shampoo ads on your Facebook. It’s no surprise though; cross-platform tracking helps companies capture customer behavior and market their products in the best way possible.

If you remember signing up for your social media account, you’ll recall agreeing to those terms and conditions. Well, the devil is in the details, and so it is with social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Snapchat — all require you to grant them access to things like your device data, location data, contacts, messages, and even what other apps you use. Most of us happily oblige without giving it all so much as a thought in exchange for access to the platform. What we don’t realize is how much is at stake. 

It’s All About Big Data

Data isn’t dangerous by itself. Useful, yes, but not dangerous. When companies gather data from across multiple sources and correlate large datasets to draw patterns about customer behavior, this gives rise to big data. Depending on how it’s used, big data is both a boon and a bane. It’s often both. 

Consider your favorite social media platforms, for example. Many will ask you to upload your contacts or address books when you’re accessing from a smartphone. The platform will do this in a bid to connect you with your friends – at least this is what they claim. 

Any information about people in your life is an incredibly vital link for a company. This helps them expand their customer base, while also understanding, rather quietly in the background, who your closest friends are. While the initial claim of connecting you with your friends is not entirely false, it’s a far cry from the full picture, isn’t it?

With Google Maps you get updated, real-time traffic information (which helps me avoid congestion when driving in the city, for instance, while Spotify recommends songs you might like after just a few listens. Personally, I use NewPipe, but I’ve heard from a lot of friends that Spotify is great at recommending songs.

Are these companies rewarding you for the data you provide or are they completely honest about what they’re doing with it? Hard to say. We know, for one, that both Google and Spotify are using the information they collect to train their algorithms.

It’s all too simple when you stop for a moment to think about how it’s done. Are you tagging nearly the same people in every post every time? Do you like some people’s posts more often than others? Are you chatting with a select few people on built-in messaging apps on social platforms? Well, such information helps the social network site better understand the important people in your life. It gets better each day.

Have You Seen Your Digital Fingerprint Yet?

Your entire virtual life on a social network takes the form of a unique identifier, much like your fingerprint. When social media data collection gives way to building explicit user personas in this manner, things take a rather sinister route. 

Social platforms can map each user’s individual traits with pre-defined templates identifying crucial data points to look for. Some experts estimate these data attributes could number well over 50,000 — hence why so many say that social media knows more about you and your family than you do. At this very moment can you honestly recount 50,000 things about you?

And with that I’m out. There’s no way I’m installing that.

Let’s take a look at the various social media data types the most used social platforms typically harvest.

  • Content data: This is the actual content you post on social networks and may include photos, videos, captions, comments, and articles. Each social media platform supports distinct content types – some, like LinkedIn, allow users to post long-form content while others, like Twitter, only support limited characters. In contrast, Instagram is primarily photo and video driven. 
  • Behavioral data: This reflects your behavioral attributes including what you like, dislike, who you follow, and what you subscribe to. Platforms track such activity in real-time which means it’s possible to mine accurate behavioral data with timestamps.
  • Transactional data: This is data about the purchases and subscriptions you make via social media. A platform can track your cart and other metrics, which includes the customer lifetime value and mean order value.
  • Engagement data: This tracks how you engage with the social media platform and third-party apps, websites, and platforms. The engagement can be on several different levels which adds to this data set’s complexity. You may or may not constantly engage with ads, other users’ posts, email notifications, and apps.
  • Personal data: Your personal data includes everything from your date of birth to your social security number. Most social media platforms will ask for your personal data upfront when you sign up. Your name, phone number, gender, interests, email address and much more. Sometimes, even what other apps you use or if you’ve changed your location in the past hour.
  • Attitudinal data: This data tracks your emotional perspectives as you navigate your way around social media. Companies track user satisfaction levels, sentiments, reviews, and complaints to harvest valuable insights which might be difficult to capture via other sources.

Is Social Media Incompatible with Privacy?

Social media data presents some unique challenges when it comes to user privacy. If unregulated, social media data collection can have detrimental effects on the freedom of expression for all users, especially when they use algorithms to moderate content. When users realize the sheer magnitude of data collection and how corporations mine their every move online, they might think twice before posting updates or stop using social media altogether.

Most social media platforms have strict policies clearly defining what data a third-party can access and for how long. Even then, what really matters is how companies react to such policy violations in the real world to establish trust in their users. When Cambridge Analytica breached Facebook terms, the latter did not take the requisite action, contributing to a widespread backlash from the worldwide community. 

Social media privacy, though difficult to guarantee, can actually become a reality if users are more aware of their usage patterns and how social platforms can mine this information. 

In the past, you could make the argument that people don’t know what’s going on. But now, social media data collection scandals have been in the mainstream for quite a while. It’s far more likely that people don’t really care about their online privacy. Of course, part of the reason is that they don’t know exactly what they sign up for… after all, those terms are dozens of pages long!

And let’s not forget cybercriminals. It’s not just big tech that can use your social media data. Cybercrooks can scrape sites and gain valuable information on you which can then be leveraged in spear phishing attacks.

What Can You Do to Limit Social Sites from Tracking You?

Despite rampant social media mining, you can still do a lot to reduce social platforms from tracking you online. 

  • Configure privacy settings: All social media platforms allow you to configure your privacy settings. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other sites, all allow you to control how much data you hand over to the platforms to a certain extent. You have the option to make your profile public or private, and limit ad data collection on the platform. Limiting ad data collection might lead to non-personalized ads, but it’s a fair compromise to keep your data strictly yours. 
  • Disable location access: Disable location access for the social apps on your smartphone, so social media platforms can no longer track you in the real world and tie in your online activities with your location. You can always turn location access on when needed and switch it back off.
  • Use privacy plugins: It’s a great idea to use social media blocking plugins and browser extensions when you browse the web. Remember those Facebook and Twitter sharing plugins on the websites you visit? They typically use tracking pixels and other technologies allowing corporations to track your activities on third-party sites. A plugin blocker inactivates them all instantly. However, this method only prevents social media sites from tracking you on external sites, not when you’re on the social media platform itself.
  • Limit social media use: This might be off-putting for many, but cutting down on your social media time can actually help improve your privacy. Rather than constantly scanning your social feeds throughout the day, establish fixed times to check through your notifications. Keep a tab on over posting too; only share updates on your social networks when absolutely essential.
  • Use social media sites rather than apps: Your smartphone reveals so much more about you compared to a desktop computer. Access your social media networks via their websites on a browser over using smartphone apps every time. Without a doubt, smartphones have revolutionized social media experiences in arguably a very positive way. However, they’ve also taken social media data collection to another level.

Does a VPN Protect Your Privacy While Using Social Media?

When you use the internet, you risk inadvertently leaking your information over the network you’re connected to. It’s a very real possibility. A VPN helps you stay safe on any network, even public ones: it encrypts all your network traffic end-to-end, so no one, including your ISP or a cybercriminal trying to intercept your traffic can see what you’re up to online. What’s more, a VPN will also mask your real IP address and replace it with a new one.

A VPN cannot protect you against social media data collection as such, because the entity collecting the data, the social media site, still sees all your activities. The moment you log on to a social media site, even with a VPN on, the site knows who you are (you did sign up and give it some information) and begins tracking you as a user. 

It’s still a great idea to use a VPN when accessing a social media platform to secure your internet connection. This way, the photos and videos you post safely make it to the social media server without anyone tampering with your data in the middle, as is common with man-in-the-middle attacks (MiTM).

A VPN secures your social media data from network attacks

Similarly, a VPN lets you access your social media platforms even on an unsecured network. When you connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, you put sensitive information (think private chats) at stake. A VPN shields all data in transit, keeping it safe. Private Internet Access VPN, for example, can secure all user connections with bulletproof AES 356-bit encryption.

It never hurts to secure your internet experience as much as possible, and a VPN certainly gives a boost to your privacy online.

Don’t Just Give Them Your Data

Social media privacy raises many ethical concerns transcending ad tracking and data security; big data and metadata analysis make it possible for corporations to profile millions without their knowledge. 

Social media data collection might appear as a horror story to those not familiar with the practice’s extent yet. While it certainly is most intrusive and privacy-invasive, you can always find ways to reduce how much data you’re handing over to a social network

Use Private Internet Access to stay safe from network snoopers and attackers. PIA VPN can secure your connection to Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp chats on even unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots.PIA also enables you to access your favorite social media platforms when you’re traveling in a region with limited access.


What is social media data?

Social media data refers to any information a social site mines from its users. When you use a social platform, you’re constantly generating new data which corporations log and analyze to their benefit. 

While social sites use your information to improve your social media experience, like suggesting friends or recommending new content, they can also use it to profile you and understand your behavior and preferences. And from there, there’s just one more step to using those details to effectively sell products or ideas to you.

What kind of data do social sites collect from our profiles?

Social media data can take on many forms. 

Every single thing you do on a social network generates social media data. Your posts, shares, comments, likes, follows, check-ins, searches, chats, and reviews all create a unique information trail identifying you. 

The content you upload on your social profiles: stories, photos, videos, and captions also contributes to your individual social media dataset.

Is harvesting data from social media an invasion of privacy?

While some social media data is critical for any social network’s functioning, there ought to be clearly-defined limits as to who accesses our data and when. More importantly, users should know outright what it is that they’re giving if they want to use the platform.

When you use any social network, you’re inevitably trading your privacy to a certain degree in exchange for a social interaction. While companies have policies detailing who may use our data and how, these are not always clear and transparent. Then again, a social media network might not strictly enforce these policies when handing over your data to a third party. 

Is it possible to use social media for surveillance purposes?

Absolutely! Considering the information density out there on our social media profiles, it’s easy for anyone to undertake surveillance on our activities online. All our media uploads, check-ins, and posts reveal who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing at a particular point in time.

Photos and videos can be geo-tagged themselves, as smartphones and most cameras these days have built-in GPS sensors. When you post a media file online without stripping away the location information first, it’s possible for anyone to know exactly where you’ve been.

We recommend using PIA VPN to secure your connections when browsing your social media and mask your IP address. PIA protects your sensitive information, like social media passwords and chats, making it incredibly difficult for hackers to access them. It’s a simple step to raise your privacy and security a notch higher on social media.