In a new study from York University, 98 per cent of people who read the terms of service (TOS) for a fake social networking app missed the “gotcha clauses” hidden in the fine print—including the section that said all users agree to give up their first-born child in exchange for access to the app.
And that was only out of the 26 per cent of study participants who even bothered scanning the TOS in the first place. Everyone else in the study skipped right through the jargon to sign up faster. Sound familiar?
As it turns out, the terms you agree to in those unread agreements could affect your ability to take out a loan, qualify for health insurance, or even land a job, says study author Jonathan Obar, Ph.D.
How so? When you agree to a TOS, you often give a company the right to collect and share your data—where you live, what you buy, and all the other sorts of activities you perform online. That information can become permanently attached to your digital identity.
And nowadays, many organisations—from employers to loan underwriters—use this data to make judgments about you, Obar says.
So what kinds of shady clauses are companies hiding in their TOS statements? Nothing as cruel as provisions that take your kids away—at least we don’t think—but there’s some alarming language nonetheless.
1. “Right To Modify” Clauses
These could allow a site to adapt, use, or redistribute any content you post to their site, says Casey Lynn Fiesler, Ph.D., an assistant professor of information sciences at the University of Colorado.
One unlikely (but theoretically possible) scenario: Your post your résumé on a job site, and they decide to include it in a book on the “worst résumés of all time.”
2. Forced Arbitration Clauses
Many apps and sites—from Pokémon Go to Snapchat—include terms that say you waive your Seventh Amendment right to sue, Fiesler says.
If one of those sites mistakenly releases or publishes your home address and credit card numbers—or any other personal information you want to be kept private—you may have relinquished the right to take them to court.
3. Broad Copyright Powers
These clauses give apps the right to do almost anything they want with the information you upload, Fiesler says.
One example: Snapchat—an app originally based on the idea of posting short-lived photos—made news when they changed their TOS to include language that allowed the company to retain, store, and republish your pics in any way they wanted.
Of course, most companies say they would never do something with your content that you wouldn’t like, Fiesler says. But it’s still troubling that they could, she adds.
4. “Irrevocable” Clauses
“This means that you can’t take back what you agreed to, even after you stop using the site,” Fiesler explains.
So, hypothetically, a site could hold onto that photo of you doing a keg-stand and sell it to a newspaper 15 years from now when you’re running for political office.
5. Auto-Agreement Clauses
Apps tweak their TOS all the time. And they’ll often include language stating that, by using their site, you automatically agree to any TOS changes they may make down the road. (They’ll usually send an email letting you know about updates, Fiesler says.)
Even if the original agreement you signed made it clear your purchase history or other information would be kept private, an app could later change their TOS to grant themselves the right to share that data with advertisers or marketers, Fiesler explains.
How To Take Action
So you’re probably wondering what you can do about all of this.
It goes without saying that you should be very careful about the information you share online. But you can’t really stop companies from using your personal data to determine if you’re fit for a loan, job, or insurance, says Obar.
Still, it’s worth looking through the TOS for language on “third party” information sharing, says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance.
“A lot of sites say they don’t share your data with third parties, or they explain how your data is shared,” Kaiser says. You could opt to use only those apps and sites that don’t share your information.
And while pretty much every web browser tracks and stores your activity to some extent, many allow you to hide it, Kaiser says.
Every time you visit a site, both that site and your browser see and record your device’s IP address, which is attached to your name. If you activate Google Chrome’s “Incognito” mode or similar services, however, your browser won’t store this data—but the sites you visit still will.
Finally, just understanding all this—what Obar calls your “digital policy literacy”—is a good thing. The more people recognize and complain to their elected officials (and Twitter followers) about privacy concerns and data discrimination, the more likely it is the system will change, he says.
But until that happens, as long as you’re on the grid, you’re at risk for data discrimination, says Obar.
Better just go read a book to be safe.