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A lot of personal information is up for grabs because of the hidden clauses in applications' terms and conditions.

Flash back to 2011 when everyone around the world was feverishly downloading the popular new app Snapchat. With just a few clicks past terms and conditions an account could be created in an instant. Yet with a terms and conditions section multiple pages long in size 11 font, it’s no wonder why many users didn’t spend the time reading what information they were signing over.

The same story is true for any application downloaded over the internet. In 2016, an experiment was conducted where users signed up for a fake application online. One of the terms and conditions clauses stated that all of their shared information would be passed along to the National Security Association. 98% of users signed the terms and conditions, proving that most users don’t read them at all and blindly sign away various rights.

It’s important to understand that terms and conditions do serve a much-needed service for both the application and the user. Generally, with terms and conditions, applications are protected against misuse by users and are granted the right to terminate accounts, among a mountain of other necessary legal conditions. Users benefit by having a written-out explanation of their rights. The issue is that so many users fail to read this explanation and understand what they sign away. 

Each application asks for rights to be given up when the user clicks “agree,” which is equivalent to a legally binding contract. Many users would be shocked to know just how much personal information big apps have the right to with this signature. For Snapchat, users sign away their right to content privacy in connection to the app. This means Snapchat has full access to use — in any way — anything a user sends or posts. This includes, but is not limited to, the user’s name, likeness or voice with no entitled compensation to the user. As an example, a user could create a funny meme through Snapchat’s editing features and Snapchat could then broadcast that photo without additional consent from the person who created it.

On Instagram, users sign away their browsing privacy rights. Instagram has full access to “how users scroll.” This means that Instagram is constantly monitoring what users enjoy based on what they view on the app, and therefore, control what content each individual sees. Perhaps most unsettling is that Instagram has full use to “collect content and communication,” meaning they can stockpile users’ personal information when signing up with the account and their conversations via Instagram’s direct messaging.

In 2018, the FBI released a new app called “FBI Physical Fitness Test” in which users see if they can complete workouts like an agent does. In the terms of use, users agree to “all of their activities” being “monitored and reordered.” This clause is vague and therefore, suspicious to many users. Included in its listed “permissions” that users agree to is precise GPS location and the ability to manipulate contents of a user’s USB storage. Its top review on the app store seems to be a sarcastic one. A user says, “It’s refreshing to know the FBI is watching my every move and will swoop in to save me when I need them most.”

When signing a legal contract, the last thing a user should do is ignore what they’re agreeing to. Many online applications take an unreal amount of personal information that then floats around on the internet. Users should be more mindful about the amount of information they permit an application to have access and legal rights to.

Josie Haneklau is a freshman political science and psychology double major. Contact Josie at hanekljr@dukes.jmu.edu.