Facebook is watching

Facebook is in the hot seat for yet another scandal regarding user data and privacy. During the last few weeks it's been confirmed that personal data of over 87 million people was accessed by researchers at Cambridge Analytica, who used the data to try to sway democratic elections worldwide.

To recap, if you're not familiar with the issue: In 2014, around 270,000 Facebook users opted in to use a Facebook app to take a personality quiz. Through this process, the third-party application was able to scrape private information from the users' profiles AND those of their friends, including details on users' identities, friends lists, and "likes" given on Facebook. This method of scraping private data was made possible at the time due to Facebook's app integration and terms of service, both which have since been modified to prohibit this behavior. In the end, however, Cambridge Analytica collected personal data from over 87 million unsuspecting people.

In the wake of learning of this scandal, Facebook is under mounting pressure to explain why this happened and discuss how they will prevent it from happening in the future. Just last week, Mark Zuckerberg faced over 10 hours of questioning from Congress over the scandal. In addition, there is now a trend calling for users and companies to #DeleteFacebook. After careful consideration, SmarterTools will not yet be joining this movement; however, we will be closely watching this situation unfold.

Facebook's Ever-Growing Reach

When you contemplate the extent of user data and information that Facebook owns, it can be worrisome to think of how that data is used and how it can be potentially abused, and people are skeptical as to whether Facebook can be trusted. Given their history of "mistakes" and disregard for user privacy, it's not hard to imagine why. Simply consider the reach that Facebook has:

  • Facebook averages 2 billion monthly users. Users who update statuses, upload media, tag friends and family in pictures, "check in" at locations and businesses, answer surveys, play Facebook games, sell items in the Marketplace, react to and share posts from the platform and so much more. There's a plethora of data to be analyzed, and all of this data is stored -- for both personal accounts and company pages. Facebook uses this data for advertising purposes internally; however, this is the type of data accessed by Cambridge Analytica, and this is the type of information that can easily fall in the wrong hands.
  • Facebook has reach around the world, owning widely used communication services like Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.
  • On Android devices, Messenger users could opt in to use Messenger for standard text messaging as well, which allowed Facebook to store all of a user's text messages, phone call history and contacts.
  • Facebook acquired Onavo Protect VPN and encourages Facebook app users to download the Onavo Protect VPN app for "protection". However, what's shocking about this acquisition and Facebook's push to use their VPN connection is Onavo's pervasive nature. Being difficult to turn off, Onavo tries to remain on all the time, and while it's on, your browsing behavior and use of other websites, apps and data will be tracked, analyzed and available to Facebook.
  • Your Facebook login credentials can be used to access other services -- even ones not directly owned by Facebook. When these platforms are connected with your Facebook login, they can now exchange information. More specifically, when logging in to other services using your Facebook login, Facebook can now track your usage of that service. For example, not only do they know that you "like" Spotify, they now know the type of music you prefer and the podcasts you listen to at work.
  • Without ever creating a Facebook account, Facebook may know about you through "shadow profiles", a term commonly used to reference data collection of non-Facebook users. This profile is gathered through users who have uploaded contacts or shared other information on Facebook, and with it, the company may have a general sense of who you are -- even if you've never signed up.

Now, some might be of the mindset that Facebook owning this mass amount of data is fine because "I have nothing to hide." However, that logic is flawed. It's not about what you do on Facebook or on the web -- it's about the acquisition of profiling data and information that can be used and potentially shared. Do you really want your browsing habits, as innocent as they are, shared with third-parties who can then build profiles on you? With the ever-growing reach that Facebook has, they have a greater responsibility to protect users and ensure their platforms are used safely and appropriately. And so far they've failed.

Potential for Misuse of Profiling Data

It's important that we consider how this information can be abused with no regulation. Facebook has vast information about people around the world, and with the amount of data available, they can generate an overall picture of a person's habits -- their likes and dislikes, their hobbies, their political preference and more.

If this type analyzed data gets into the wrong hands, the possibility for misuse is astronomical. Imagine how this information could be used by corporations and political parties, or even your everyday employers. It could be used as a true personality evaluation, and without regulation, there's no doubt that corporations would use this information to their benefit. Are we truly turning into a society where corporations can dictate our personal lives and heavily influence our politics, jeopardizing our democratic status?

In fact, you don't need to only imagine how this info can be used… just take a quick look at the Social Credit System that's occurring in China. This worry of misusing this data may seem a bit radical, but it's really not so out of reach. For those not familiar, the Social Credit System is a Chinese government initiative for creating a national reputation system. In short, each citizen is assigned a "social credit" rating based on government data regarding their "honesty in government affairs, commercial integrity, societal integrity and judicial credibility". A citizen's score determines whether they can travel on a plane or train, receive a loan, buy a home, pay for private school tuition or even create a social media account.

We don't want to believe that we'd find ourselves in a similar situation here in the United States. However, in the wake of these corporation and data leaks -- in the wake of learning that Facebook's profiling data aided a corporation in influencing our 2016 democratic election -- it's something to take very seriously. It's perhaps even something to fear.

Anxiously Awaiting Regulation

In Mark Zuckerberg's hearing with members of Congress and the Senate, he claimed that users can download all of the data Facebook collects on them and delete anything they'd like. He said multiple times that YOU control what you share. However, that's simply not the case. There's no doubt that the data interpreted from your information is not accessible to you, nor available to be deleted. Despite removing items from your archive or deleting your account as a whole, Facebook will still know all about you and will continue to based on friends and family using the platform.

Unless companies like Facebook grasp the importance of keeping private information private, the government will have to step in to set better guidelines for transparency and restrict what companies can do with our personal information. Here at SmarterTools, we will continue to monitor this situation closely, and we anxiously await the robust privacy options Facebook has promised and any government intervention found necessary.

In the meantime, know that SmarterTools will NEVER give away or sell customer/user data, and, if necessary, we will remove ourselves from any platform that jeopardizes that privacy. With all other applications and platforms, do what you can to keep your privacy guarded. Read the terms or service and review any security settings available to you. Lock down your accounts as much as possible to keep your personal information from being misused.

Taking an active approach to managing our privacy and security is the best way to combat the increasing reach of these organizations. If we don't take this situation seriously and actively utilize the control we have, who knows what the future could hold.