A massive data privacy row erupted in the press this week as Facebook was found to have sold personal data belonging to more than 50 million people to Cambridge Analytica.
Why does Facebook harvest your data?
Facebook is by far the largest social media platform, with 2.2 billion monthly active users. Reaching such a massive amount of people requires an enormous amount of resource including technology, power, buildings and an army of people to deliver the uninterrupted Facebook experience many of us enjoy.
Facebook uses the information we enter into the platform to help advertisers deliver carefully targeted ads to users. These ads create the income to maintain the Facebook infrastructure and to keep shareholders happy.
Here’s a crude example: you are mad about dogs and own a pug. You like the Cute Pugs Facebook page, are a member of your local Hugs for Pugs Facebook group and have visited the website of an online pet supply store. The store owner knows (from their Facebook pixel) you are a pug fanatic and can now schedule pug accessory ads to appear on your timeline.
Facebook also has your name, date of birth, address, email address and most probably a lot of similar information that belongs to your friends and family. Every time you check into a store, restaurant or tourist attraction, Facebook stores that data. Whether you realise it or not, you are leaving a trail of data wherever you go – and that extends to shopping with loyalty cards and filling up your car at the pumps with your bank card.
What have Facebook and Cambridge Analytica done wrong?
Facebook invited users to fill out the ‘This is your Digital Life” personality quiz, developed by Cambridge University researcher, Dr Aleksander Kogan.
The app collected information from 270,000 people that completed the quiz as well as harvesting data belonging to their family and friends, affecting an estimated 50 million people. Cambridge Analytica bought the data and used it to profile American voters, enabling them to send targeted campaign material on behalf of Donald Trump’s election campaign.
Two things will happen as a result of this scandal.
1 – We will all have a clearer understanding of the value of data
2 – An increased awareness of the need to protect personal data
Facebook shares fell 2.6% when news of the scandal broke, wiping an estimated $60 billion off the stock value of the company. Governments around the world are concerned that similar events could impact their political process are demanding apologies and reassurance from Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg – who’s failure to respond swiftly has drawn criticism. Facebook users are also taking action with the hashtag #DeleteFacebook gathering momentum. Ironically, many are decamping to WhatsApp and Instagram – also owned by Facebook, D’oh.
The need to protect personal data is something we talk about often, albeit from a business owners perspective. We’ve spent much of the last twelve months discussing the new data protection legislation, the GDPR which comes into effect in a few weeks.
The difference with this case is the scale. Talk Talk and other high profile companies have suffered significant data breaches that only affect their customers. More than a quarter of the world’s population use Facebook every month, a massive amount.
How to protect personal data on Facebook or any other social media platform
If you want to restrict the number of ads that appear on your timeline, install adblocking software. There are many adblocking apps on the Internet, but as always, you should tread carefully. We would recommend against installing potentially invasive browser extensions as many of these have security vulnerabilities. We definitely wouldn’t recommend installing such apps on a business PC.
Another tip is to limit the number of pages, topics and other general stuff you like on Facebook. Much of the data mined in the Cambridge Analytica case was personality based, and this type of data is like gold dust to online advertisers. You can also limit the amount of information your browser is gathering and sending to social media sites by browsing the web in private or incognito mode.
Don’t post things that you want to keep private on social media. If you enter personal information on social media, protect your account with a secure password and adjust the privacy settings to ensure no-one outside of your immediate network of friends, family and colleagues can see your posts.
Social media sites have lengthy terms and conditions – which many of us don’t read. Facebook has updated theirs to prevent this type of data disaster happening in future, but when a platform has access to so much personal information, it is only a matter of time before another situation occurs.
Network ROI is a Managed Service Provider specialising in network security and data protection. We are always ready to talk about information security, visit www.networkroi.co.uk if you want to know more.