We are reminded almost daily – whether by the gossip magazine we idly browse at the newsagent, morning television, or the casual chat with colleagues – our habitual use of social media has reached dizzying heights. Facebook alone has 1.4 billion daily active users around the world. But in the face of increasingly data-hungry governments and corporations, can we trust social media sites to keep our private information safe?
What is Cambridge Analytica?
If you’ve watched the news at any point over the past few weeks, you’ll know two things: that certain Australian cricketers been very naughty boys, and that Mark Zuckerburg and his fellow Facebook executives may also have been very naughty boys. Zuckerburg has been accused of failing to prevent a massive privacy breach by analytics and marketing firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA). Facebook announced that up to 87 million users have been affected by the scandal, including more than 300,000 Australians whose private data may have been used without their knowledge or permission.
CA shot to worldwide infamy as the campaigning powerhouse behind Donald Trump’s successful election as President in 2016, and later, the Brexit campaign. Since the news broke that CA harvested the data of 50 million Facebook users to target US voters, commentators have been debating the ethicality of its modelling techniques.
The modelling technique used by CA builds what are referred to as ‘psychometric’ profiles. This is a form of very intensive profiling that CA uses to personalise and better target political messaging. Long gone are the days of Myers-Briggs tests and targeted surveys – IBM now has a tool that can infer your personality from Tweets and emails!
While psychometric profiling is pretty common practice, this is the first instance where it has attracted such widespread attention – largely because some claim that it directly influenced two of the most historic votes of the century so far.
Where does Facebook come in?
The trail of breadcrumbs back to Facebook starts with a psychology professor, Aleksandr Kogan, from the University of Cambridge. Kogan created a personality testing app, and Facebook gave him permission to collect participant’s Facebook data, including information on their friends who had not participated in the test. Kogan allegedly sold that data to CA, who subsequently used it in their campaigns, despite this being a breach of Facebook’s rules.
The loophole in Facebook’s Application Programming Interface (API) that allowed Kogan to access the data of the friends of those who used his app has since been closed. But Zuckerberg is still facing questions about Facebook’s conduct. Should Facebook be more transparent with users about how their information is being used? Does Facebook have obligation to keep tabs on how third parties are using our data?
In Facebook we trust?
Unfortunately, using Facebook involves a trade-off between privacy and continuing to use the platform for free.
Facebook’s entire business model is built on selling its user data to other companies so that they can better target their adverts. That’s why you’re seeing the ad for that clothing site you were just browsing and the gym you just googled.
In the aftermath of the scandal, critics have been calling for more regulation of social media platforms, or at the very least, giving users more control over what information Facebook can sell to advertisers.
Zuckerburg will testify before Congress in the coming weeks, a critical first step on the road towards transparency.
Facebook will, however, remove the option to find people using their phone or email address, disallow apps from accessing user data if that person has not used the app for three months, and restrict the information about users’ events that apps are party to.
A need for regulation?
The recent scandal is just the tip of the privacy iceberg and has uncovered an issue that is much bigger than Zuckerberg or even Facebook itself. Chances are, this will not be the last major privacy breach by a corporate giant that we see in our lifetimes.
This week, Australia’s Privacy Commissioner has launched a formal investigation into Facebook to determine whether the Cambridge Analytica scandal has breached the Australian Privacy Act. Under the Notifiable Data Breaches scheme, the Privacy Commissioner, Angelene Falk, has the power to issue fines of up to $2.1 million to organisations that fail to comply with the Act.
Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of regulation, and discrepancies in regulation, when it comes to the usage of private data and social media platforms around the world. From May this year, the European Union will implement the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which addresses the export of personal data outside the EU. The GDPR will not only ensure consistency in data regulation across the EU but will also aim to give citizens and residents more control over their personal data. It may be time that Australia looks into the development of similar legislation.
In the meantime, as social media plays an increasingly integral, and largely unregulated, role in our day-to-day lives, it is up to users of these platforms to start demanding more accountability, transparency and responsible use of our data.
Lead image via Thought Catalog.