Stop Facebook and Google spying on you

GOOGLE and Facebook are harvesting "unprecedented" amounts of deeply private information about Australians - from what they buy and where they go to who they know and when they call them - and could be breaking Australian laws to do so.

While the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has launched five separate investigations into the potential abuse of users' information, privacy experts say there are still ways to shut tech giants out of some parts of your life using the right settings and tools.

Facebook collects data you may not even realise. Picture: Supplied
Facebook collects data you may not even realise. Picture: Supplied

The advice comes after the ACCC's investigation into tech giants including Google and Facebook found Australian consumers generally did not understand how much information was being collected about them on social media and across the web, and had little control over it.

"There is a substantial disconnect between how consumers think their data should be treated and how it is actually treated," the report found.

"Digital platforms collect vast troves of data on consumers from ever-expanding sources and have significant discretion over how this user data is used and disclosed to other businesses and organisations, both now in the future."

The ACCC found most users did not read Facebook or Google's terms of service, which ran up to 4500 words, and even the collection of the most sensitive user information, such as tracking their location, was mandatory or turned on by default.

An ACCC staff member who downloaded his data, for example, and found lists of every app he had ever installed, the contact details of all his friends, and voice recordings of every question his family asked of their Google smart speaker.

Five investigations are now underway into Facebook and Google's collection of location data, their privacy policies, unfair contract terms, and sharing users' information with unnamed third parties.

Swinburne University social media senior lecturer Dr Belinda Barnet said the investigations, and report proved Australia urgently needed consumer privacy protections and an overhaul of privacy laws.

"You have to have a lot of technical knowledge (to protect your privacy) or a lot of money to pay someone else to research it for you," Dr Barnet said.

"Really, it should just be part of privacy law. We need an overarching law with respect to privacy so platforms like Google and Facebook are responsible for what they do with user data and are responsible for what they publish."

Google sees lots of personal data every time you search. Picture: Supplied
Google sees lots of personal data every time you search. Picture: Supplied

But Dr Barnet said savvy social media users could limit data collection in the meantime by scrutinising app permissions, using privacy apps such as Guardian Firewall, and turning off location services, where possible.

Digital marketing strategist Meg Coffey said consumers should also question whether an app or service can be trusted with their personal information, and if they're getting enough out of the transaction to justify it.

She also cautioned consumers against sharing their phone number with tech firms, for example, and to do research before accepting long user agreements.

"We need consumers to slow down and realise they're paying for these services with their data," she said. "We need to be pushing this idea that if you are not paying for it, you are the product."


Your birthday, phone number, voice recordings, what you buy, how you pay for it, your location, your movements, your emails, uploaded photos and video, phone calls, messages, appointments, online comments, the devices you use, videos you watch, apps you install, third-party websites you visit with Google ads or Facebook pixel, what mobile network you use.


- Guardian Firewall: This brand new app for Apple devices uses a Virtual Private Network to monitor data and location trackers and the requests they send to your device. You can see all the pings made to your device free of charge, and subscribers can block their requests for data.

- DuckDuckGo: A search engine with a focus on privacy, this Google competitor promises to block website trackers, keep users' search history private, and give users control over what data is collected about them. It's available as an addition to web browsers or as a smartphone app.

- Facebook Container: Created by Mozilla, this addition to Firefox prevents Facebook from tracking your activity around the web, ensuring the social network does not collect data about your online shopping or web search activities.

- Check app privacy: Some apps collect more data than they actually need. You can check the permissions of each in Google Android and Apple iOS menus and, additionally, Apple will allow users to limit location collection only while using some apps.

- Facebook settings: In a web browser, you can access Facebook's privacy settings by selecting the question mark icon. There you can select whether you want Facebook to recognise your face, share your birthdate publicly, and track your location history.

- Google settings: From Gmail, select your account, privacy, and privacy check-up. You can turn off Google's collection of all your location data and your web and app activity here, or command it to be deleted automatically every three months. There are also controls for the way Google records the devices you use, your voice recordings from Google Assistant, and your YouTube history.

- No cookies: You can turn off 'cookies' that track your web activity from within web browsers such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple's Safari, and you can delete cookies already stored against your account. To avoid them one a one-off basis, open an 'incognito' or 'private browser' and sites you visit won't be stored against your profile.

- Unique login: Never sign up for a new service or app using the "login with Facebook" or "login with Google" options to avoid more data being added to your profile.

- Secret phone: Do not hand over your phone number to social media services, except to enable two-factor authentication. While email addresses change, your phone number is likely to stay the same.

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