Social Media Uses Personal Data for Profit


Eric Ye, Forum Writer

Many services on the web are free, but almost nobody stops to think of where the profits came from. In fact, the user is the product and companies sell users’ data to third parties who use this data for more personalized advertisements.

According to, every time a new website is visited, a small piece of data, called a ‘cookie’ is stored into the user’s computer. Advertisers could use this data to identify users and provide them with targeted ads that advertisers pay more on.

According to a CNBC article, FaceBook’s advertising platform is highly precise and allows targeting based on income, price and other metrics. In fact, it could pinpoint a user’s address to within a one-mile radius.

In addition to tracking users on its own platform, Facebook can track users on other websites through hidden tracking pixels. Tracking pixels can be images one pixel large that the user cannot see, but when the web browser loads the image, Facebook’s servers are contacted, and the user’s computer is identified.

In addition to taking away users’ privacy, there are social and emotional implications of data harvesting.

According to NPR, whistleblower Francis Haugan has released thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents. She claims that Facebook is putting profits over children’s’ safety. Haugan worked for over two years at Facebook. She released Facebook studies that have shown that 32% of teen girls felt bad about their bodies, and Instagram made them feel worse.

“I saw that Facebook repeatedly encountered conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolved those conflicts in favor of its own profits.” She writes in a written testimony to the Senate

“In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people. In other cases, their profit optimizing machine is generating self-harm and self-hate — especially for vulnerable groups, like teenage girls.”

In addition, the data that is harvested through social media companies could be snooped by other parties, and it could change the outcome of the election.

Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, was able to track users through a personality quiz app that users could access through facebook, according to a story in the New York Times. Once a user takes the quiz, the user’s profile, including their political beliefs, interests, and friend information are harvested. The data could then be used to send the users personalized ads in order to manipulate the elections. 

Skyline Computer Science Teacher Kasthuri Sakthikumar does not believe in enforcing age restrictions on social media so that teenagers can better prepare themselves for the future.

“I don’t believe that we need to shield teenagers using age restrictions, because what are they going to do when they grow up?” says Sakthikumar.

Instead, she thinks that being safe from social media is an important 21st century skill and is part of being a good digital citizen.

“Children, teenagers particularly, should be good digital citizens, which is an important 21st century skill. It is important that you know how to apply those skills”, said Sakthikumar. 

“Digital citizenship also means that they are responsible for others’ privacy as well. You need to check the authenticity of the post on social media.” 

However, companies have taken steps to increase user privacy. For example, Apple has recently added a prompt that forces the users to make a conscious decision whether to share their Identification for Advertisers (IDFA) tag, which advertisers can use to track them on other apps.

Instead of waiting for social media companies to limit their tracking, users should be aware of their data that is being collected by social media companies every time they access the web. Do not forget to thoroughly read the terms and conditions of social media companies before signing up.