Data is much in the news right now. With the headlines buzzing around Facebook and the use of data by the company Cambridge Analytica, it’s worth having a look at what really happened and how our data is be being used online.
Facebook collects everything. Everything we do on the site, everything we add – from the pictures of our children to our date of birth and pizza preferences – is owned by Facebook the moment we upload it.
This information is what is classed as personal data. It is Facebook’s currency – and has been for many years. The personal data we have been adding to Facebook for the last decade or so is being bought and sold every day. When advertisers wants to target a specific group of customers, such as those of a certain age or who have particular political leanings, Facebook makes it easy.
Everything that we share, and the inferences Facebook makes about us, is packaged together with other people’s similar data, stripped of names and any personal details, and sold. The buyer can then target ads and make sure that they go directly in front of the people they know they can influence. In very simple terms, on Facebook, we are the product and advertisers are the customer.
It’s worked well. Facebook is worth over $400bn even with the recent slump in share values.
It’s important to remember that Facebook is not alone. Most advertiser-supported networks sell some of your information to third parties. From Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, to Amazon, Twitter and Snapchat. They all do the same.
We get to use the service for free, they get information about us they can use. It’s the agreement we enter into when we click that little box of Terms and Conditions (often without bothering to read them!) We get to have contact with friends, a repository of information other people can see about us and all the fun of feeling like we are really connected to everybody online, in return for them owning everything we post.
On the whole, this agreement works okay. Most of the companies that collect our data use it for legitimate purposes and within the bounds that companies like Facebook permit. After all, it’s not in the interest of most advertising companies to annoy the hell out of us. They want to target us with things we like, things we want and things we are close to buying.
But, in the last week we’ve learned that the data company Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed 50 million Facebook users’ personal information in an attempt to influence the US elections and Brexit vote.
The events were that a researcher used a personality test to capture information about people’s preferences, social background, likes and dislikes etc. These kind of personality tests are very common on Facebook. Many of us have completed them, and ticked the little box saying that the company providing them will have access to our Facebook Profiles. Why would we do that? Well, we all like to know What type of Harry Potter Wizard we might be or Which Game of Thrones Character we are!
This is legitimate. Facebook allows it, and many of us have completed these questionnaires, and then proudly displayed to our Facebook friends that we are, in fact, the rightful ruler of Westeros!
However, where things became controversial is in the claim made by Facebook that the researcher then broke its rules when he passed the personal information he had collected to Cambridge Analytica, without the users’ authorisation. Cambridge Analytica then went on to use the information in its personalised targeted political campaigns.
Unfortunately, this is the difficult aspect of online data. Once it’s out there, it’s hard to contain it.
Facebook places a great deal of trust in companies and researchers who obtain personal data to use it properly. If companies break the rules, Facebook can punish them by suspending their access to the site. Facebook certainly did this with Cambridge Analytica, but only after personal data had already been sent and used.
Internet companies have a financial incentive to have their users share as much personal information as possible. If users have greater control over what information is available, the social networks will have poorer quality data to sell to advertisers, meaning that they earn less money.
Whilst privacy settings can limit the data you share, most companies don’t make it easy to use them effectively and many users simply don’t bother at all to check what level of privacy they have signed up to.
There are calls for more transparency around personal data use. The Electronic Freedom Foundation says: “Tech companies can and should do more to protect users, including giving users far more control over what data is collected and how that data is used”.
But it’s important always to remember that once you share something on any digital service, your personal information is now out of your control.
Facebook will probably face some difficult questions and some media and online backlash. But it’s unlikely to lose its main user base, as too many people rely on the services it offers. How it manages our data is open for debate, but the information payoff will always be there. If we want access to “free” digital services we are going to have to pay for it somehow. The question is, what are we willing to pay with, and what is the real price that we pay?
If you want any advice or help in managing your business and company data, contact us at Wood ITC for our IT and data security health check.