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Facebook is one of the giants of the tech world, and it has weathered scandals in the past. It takes a lot of controversy and scrutiny to harm the company in any material way, which just highlights the serious nature of the recent data privacy revelations coming out about Facebook.
Individual users give a huge amount of personal data to the social media platforms they use, a fact which can quickly become concerning when an organization is charged with misusing its stores of information.
As Facebook’s affair continues to unfold, it’s important to consider both what has happened and the consequences going forward. How have these events impacted the individuals whose information was misused? What will happen to Facebook as a company and service provider? From financial damage to government scrutiny, the social media giant has found itself under an unusual amount of pressure.
According to The Guardian, political consulting and data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, harvested detailed information from the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica worked on its data-harvesting algorithm in 2014 in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election.
Normally, we would view Facebook as a victim in the scandal since they had their data stolen. But the way Facebook allowed third-party apps to collect and keep that data, and the actions taken by the social platform afterward, show its role to be less than benign. By late 2015, Facebook realized that Cambridge Analytica was using a personality test app to harvest the data of people who took the quizzes and individuals in those people’s Facebook friends lists. Facebook responded by taking minimal steps to address the policy-breaking data collection behind closed doors and didn’t report the issue to the public.
What are government agencies doing?
Facebook’s culpability in the harvesting of so many users’ information has brought it international scrutiny from regulatory bodies. Time magazine reported that there is an active Federal Trade Commission investigation about whether the social network lived up to a 2011 decree requiring Facebook to seek consent from users when the platform changes its privacy settings. Facebook settled the case in 2011 because the federal agency concluded that the social media company was making people share access to personal data beyond what they intended to share.
With the power to impose heavy fines on Facebook, the FTC has the support of many voices in the U.S. government. According to the Time article, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and Florida’s Marco Rubio are among those who have expressed their worries about the potential misuse of data.
The FTC is not the only body investigating. Right out of the gate, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office took action, and the British Information Commissioner’s Office is interested in the connection between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook as part of a wide-ranging investigation on political data mining. The Electoral Commission is also investigating the use of information in the European Union referendum that lead to Brexit.
What data does Facebook have?
Yahoo Finance columnist Ethan Wolff-Mann recently pointed out that Facebook users can dig into their trove of personal data to see how much the platform knows. There is a setting within Facebook’s menus that zips the history of a person’s Facebook use into a downloadable file.
While the information doesn’t have the same kind of security implications as login credentials or financial info, but its loss is still cause for concern among social media users. The history of a person’s likes and dislikes, friendships, opinions and photos can all be used by marketers. That’s why online services are so eager to harvest it. When companies overstep regulations to use this content without permission – or when user agreements are surprisingly lenient with what they permit – it can feel like an invasion of privacy.
How can users share less information?
There are ways to manually shut down information-sharing features and give Facebook as little personal data as possible. Although these small-scale actions can’t prevent mass data misuse on their own, they can minimize the amount that companies will learn about a person from illicit or under-explained data harvesting.
For example, The Verge explained that Facebook’s mobile app can tell where people are when they post. There are privacy settings to prevent this collection. Furthermore, each third-party app has an individual setting that dictates if it can collect data. Concerned users should check the list of apps to see which ones are allowed to see individual data, and turn off unknown or questionable programs. The importance of this step is emphasized by recent revelation that Cambridge Analytica acquired data from a quiz app.
There are more privacy settings in Facebook’s network of menus, from ad data preferences to sharing general personal information. Adjusting these to your personal preference is often overlooked but could be a useful way to help control how much data is shared.
What does privacy mean in the digital era?
The recent revelations about data collection and Facebook raise serious questions about how secure personal data is in an era defined by social networks and other digital conveniences. A combination of ambiguous privacy policies, user’s willingness to steal data and a lack of corporate transparency can create a quagmire of data sharing loopholes and vulnerabilities enabled an unethical advertising campaign to thrive in a hotly contested election. With so much information being shared every day, there’s every chance such an event will happen again.
Individuals who take the time to monitor their identities closely and keep watch over how their personal data is shared could potentially fare better than less-protected online users in this information-rich era.
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