The Cambridge Analytica/Facebook story has been dominating the news cycle for the last week. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Cambridge Analytica used the Facebook data of roughly 50M unwitting users to create hyper-targeted advertising strategies for the Trump campaign. While this isn’t particularly unusual — politicians/companies have been using Facebook data this way for over a decade — it is a great opportunity for us to evaluate the relationship between our data and the social media sites we use.
Important Note: This post isn’t meant to bash Facebook. In many ways, it’s enriched the lives of millions of people (think #IceBucket challenge). However, as we live more of our lives on social media, it’s important we discuss how our data is used and how we can protect it.
Will Facebook Really Change?
Facebook’s business model is simple. We get to use Facebook for free, but, in exchange, we give them valuable information about ourselves — what we like, how we feel, where we live, what we talk about.
Most of the time this data is used for good. Facebook uses it to serve us more relevant ads or we share our it with a third party app who uses that data to enrich our life. However, once a third party has that data, there’s not much stopping them from breaking the Facebook Terms of Service and using it for an unauthorized purpose.
In this case, the data was originally obtained via user permission for an app called “thisisyourdigitallife”. Years later, that data was sold to Cambridge Analytica, without the permission of the original users. This is against Facebook’s TOS and once Facebook found out, they attempted to remedy the situation, but to no avail. Once the data is out there, there is little you can do to control where it ends up.
Once the story broke, Facebook scrambled to find answers until they finally broke the silence. If Facebook’s response tells us anything, it’s this:
1. Facebook won’t be changing its business model. The only real way to stop this from happening would be for Facebook to change from a model that relies on free data to something else, like charging users to use the site. This is unlikely because most people wouldn’t pay to use Facebook and it would fundamentally change Facebook’s lucrative business model. Mark Zuckerberg pretty much said as much in his recent New York Times Interview “But I don’t think the ad model is going to go away, because I think fundamentally, it’s important to have a service like this that everyone in the world can use, and the only way to do that is to have it be very cheap or free.”
2. Without changing the business model there’s little Facebook can do to stop this type of thing from happening. In the interview, Zuckerberg offers some tangible steps Facebook will take to prevent this from happening in the future. However, the sobering reality is, while these steps may make data exploitation less frequent, there is no way to prevent it. As long as Facebook shares data there will always be people willing to abuse the data once they have it. It’s important to note that this isn’t a problem exclusive to Facebook. It’s a challenge all internet companies need to face.
What does this mean to you as a consumer?
It means the responsibility is on you to protect your data from being shared in ways you don’t approve. You can’t rely on Facebook — or any platform — to keep all your data safe. How do you go about doing this? Here’s a quick checklist:
1. Audit which companies already have access to your Facebook data: I bet you’ll be surprised at how big that number is. To do this, simply go here, and remove any app you don’t want to have your data.
2. Don’t share your data with a third party unless you’re getting something valuable in return: We’ve become too comfortable giving apps access to our Facebook data for nothing in return. It’s a one sided transaction. Don’t connect Facebook unless you understand exactly what you’ll get for it. For example, at BrandYourself we ask you to connect Facebook to show you what would get flagged during an online screening. It can prevent you from losing a job opportunity over an unprofessional post and saves you the time of sorting through it all yourself. The transaction is clear. If you aren’t getting clear value in exchange for your data, don’t share it.
3. Don’t share your data if it’s unclear how they’ll profit from it. You should research any company before you give them access to your Facebook data. If they seem like a scam, run away. However, even if they seem legitimate, you should try to understand how they make money. If they don’t charge you directly, chances are they’ll monetize your data in some way down the line. If it’s unclear how they’ll do that, you should think twice about connecting. For example, at BrandYourself it’s clear we make money through user subscriptions and only use your data to improve your product experience. We believe this type of transparency is key to fixing the problem in the future.
4. Think twice about what you post online: Remember, everything you do on Facebook (and other networks) will be collected, analyzed and used to judge you. Even if your data wasn’t specifically used in this situation, it should serve as a wake-up call. The data you share on the web can have a direct impact on your life. For example, 70% of employers screen social media before making hiring decisions. Not sure how to walk the line? As a rule of thumb, don’t post something online if you wouldn’t be comfortable with it on the front page of the NY Times.
This isn’t the first time social media data has been exploited, and it certainly won’t be the last. Some people are considering getting off social media altogether. However, even if that isn’t your game plan, it is absolutely essential we all have a better understanding of who has our data and how we protect it.