Social Media Word Cloud with Megaphone Shape
Social Media Word Cloud with Megaphone Shape
Social Media Word Cloud with Megaphone Shape

If you have an account on Facebook, you may have noticed posts featuring a nicely designed cloud comprised of the words that your Facebook friends use most often. It’s powered by an app from a company called Vonvon, and it’s been getting a lot of attention this week from consumer privacy experts.

The reason this app has privacy hawks screeching is simple. It grabs an enormous amount of personally identifiable information and private details about Facebook users for way too little in return.

In exchange for a graphically-appealing cloud featuring the names of your children and/or significant others, pets, the stuff of warm-hearted Aws and Ohs — and, let’s not forget, potential answers to security questions that might allow a clever fraudster to execute an account takeover — the app seems to get virtually everything there is to know about you.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a rundown:

It gets your name, profile picture, age, sex, birthday and other public info as well as your entire friend list. It knows everything you’ve ever liked. It scans anything you or anyone else has posted in your Timeline. It knows where you went to school. It sees every photo associated with you, including the ones you’re tagged in on other users’ Timelines (yet another reason to review all tags before allowing them to post). It sees your hometown and current city as well as your IP address and what kind of device — even browser — you use.

In short, the app grabs what seems like an El Dorado of personal information — and all this for a pretty cloud of words and names.

Time Magazine reached out to Vonvon President David Hahn for comment. Based on that conversation, Time reported the following:

The company cannot store any user data itself. When a Facebook user interacts with Vonvon’s content, their information continues to reside in the social network’s servers, and Vonvon cannot copy the data. In fact, says Hahn, the only bit of data that Vonvon receives from connecting a user to its services is the user’s Facebook ID number, anonymized digits that let returning users access their results on the company’s various quizzes and viral content such as “Are You A Psychopath?” “Who has a crush on you?” and “Which Pixar Superstar Captures You Perfectly?”

Time checked out Hahn’s claims with a third-party expert, Jeremy Gillula, staff technologist for the privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, who said that it appeared Vonvon was “indeed playing it safe with user data.” The problem is that many users don’t know if an app is on the up and up, and they have to ask themselves this core question: is it worth taking the risk to find out? (This is a rhetorical question. The answer is: no, no, no!)

Regardless the actual usage of the data collected (Gillula didn’t rule out darker purposes: “Without looking at every single line of the code, you can’t be 100% sure,” he says. “There’s certainly no easy way for users to be sure.”), the Vonvon privacy policy reads like a privacy advocate’s parody of what to look out for when reading a privacy policy (and that’s the problem. In a world where you can’t know for sure, what should you do?). For instance, the privacy policy reads:

We do not share your Personal Information with third parties unless We have received your permission to do so, or given you notice thereof (such as by telling you about it in this Privacy Policy)

Worst-case scenario? They just told you that they are going to do it, so they can do it. If that weren’t bad enough, the site reserves the right to use your information even if you end your membership with the site (since when does an app require membership?):

… you acknowledge and agree that We may continue to use any non-personally-identifying information in accordance with this Privacy Policy (e.g., for the purpose of analysis, statistics and the like) also after the termination of your membership to this WebSite and/or use of our services, for any reason whatsoever.

Still not freaked out? The company’s lax privacy policy doesn’t even apply to the third parties to whom they most definitely reserve the right to sell your information.

… this Privacy Policy does not apply to the practices of entities Vonvon does not own or control, or to individuals whom Vonvon does not employ or manage, including any third parties to whom Vonvon may disclose Personal Information …

In my book Swiped, I provide some tactics for better social networking site hygiene, much of which will make apps like Vonvon’s less of a threat to your private information.

1. Change Your Name

If you tweak your name just a little, or use a nickname, life will be easier for you after a potential hack. Open more than one account. (Yes, using a slightly altered name may technically violate Facebook’s terms of service, but 80 million accounts already do it, says privacy expert John Sileo.) And don’t be scared by the argument that anonymity leads to crime, says online security expert C. Matthew Curtin: “You can do bad things anonymously, and you can do bad things using your name.”

2. Stop Geotagging Your Photos

Geotagging includes the latitude and longitude where a picture was taken. If you right-click on a photo, you can find this information under “properties.” If you are using an iPhone, look under “Settings,” go to “Privacy,” then “Location Services” to turn off location services for all applications or just for individual applications, like the camera. Even if you turn this feature off on your camera or smartphone, all photos you have already taken will contain the information.

3. Lie About Your Age

While it’s fun to get birthday greetings on your wall, your birth date is a key piece of information needed to steal your identity. Consider posting at least the wrong year.

4. Don’t Store Your Credit Card Information Online

Some social networking sites and online retailers require a credit card or allow you to save your credit card information. Buyer beware.

5. Have Some Boundaries

When social media sites ask you where your photo was taken, keep it to yourself. There is no reason to post pictures that tell a potential thief not only where your house is located, but what sort of transportation will be needed to take all your stuff. Don’t brag about new cars, especially if your photos show where you keep the keys in your kitchen. And set your privacy controls so only people you know can see factoids that could be used to create a new credit card account or the like.

6. Less Is More (Peace of Mind)

While we all have pride in the things we’ve done and the places we’ve lived, the more you tell the world about it, the more likely that information will bring you to the attention of an identity thief. Go through your Timeline and remove posts that provide personally identifiable information.

7. Deactivate Your Account

As Mr. Miyagi told Daniel-san in The Karate Kid, “Remember, best block, no be there.” You can’t get hacked if you don’t have an account.

In general, your personally identifiable information — along with the digital facts of your likes, dislikes, recent purchases and non-purchases — is worth something to the companies that collect it. Usually they offer something for it. Facebook lets you connect with friends from the past, present (and even future). Other information gathering sites, and the apps that market them or gather information for them, offer content that will be of interest to you, or provide you with some sort of convenience or entertainment. As with all things, you really should do a little personal cost-benefit analysis. Think before you blink, and don’t click any old app.