There has been so much brouhaha, about the recent admission of data leaks and apology by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, that people have started closing their Facebook accounts. Friends are warning each other off social media by sharing scary conspiracy theories on the very same social media. Is there merit to being afraid of social media or is this mere hype that will soon die down?
Let us first understand what kind of data leak Zuckerberg talked about and how this data was put to use by Cambridge Analytica. FB allows, or used to allow, some developers to access the profile of their users. These apps were innocuous in nature like the quiz apps that we used to test our IQ (!) or the fun games (!!) that predicted our previous birth location. According to reports, one such app that was allowed access to your profile (which included data on your location, age, gender, email id, profile picture and your FB friends list) was run by Cambridge Analytica (CA) who later used this information to send targeted information and run malicious campaigns to win elections for their clients. Facebook has, since the admission of breach, tightened access to your profile and such apps will not have access to much information, henceforth.
People have been aghast that their profile was used to target information to them. They feel their privacy was violated. Was it, really? If by being shown information that one didn’t ask for is an invasion of privacy then Television networks are guilty of doing that just about every night. All that happened here was that an individual was assigned to baskets that were labelled like “sympathiser” for a cause or “appropriate age group” for receiving an information. Your data was part of a statistic. The irony in this is that all the information that Cambridge Analytica used to target users are actually for sale by Facebook for marketeers.
Yes, Facebook offers this very same information to brands and companies to show their ads to users. When Facebook started offering ads for brands, the targeting features were quite limited to demographics (age, gender, location) and pages liked. Over years, their system has become so sophisticated that it is now possible to show ads to users that have been clubbed under various categories like “new home owners”, “recently engaged”, “luxury brand buyer”, “long distance runner”, “women entrepreneur”, “African American” etc etc. The level of detail that Facebook offers to marketeers is so amazing that FB is fast overtaking Google as the advertiser of choice on digital media. Social Media Marketeers have been doing exactly what CA has been accused of doing, except CA did not pay FB for doing that.
I recently visited a Lifestyle store after having looked up on Google where the nearest store was. Since I carried my phone with me while I visited the store, Google placed me in the basket “female, age 30 plus, living in Chennai, upper middle to high income group, interested in fashion/home-decor”and started showing me ads of Home Improvement brands and fashion labels on all the websites I visited. Most of you would have experienced this – you view a product on Amazon and then when you open FB, you find that very same product shown to you as an advertisement. This is called re-marketing in the digital marketeers’ world and this is achieved by placing pixels on your browser so FB tracks you wherever you go digitally. In any of these cases, what matters to FB/Google is your demographic profile and your purchase behaviour and interests. They do not care for your name or your picture or your personality. It is not about you but about what you can be made to buy.
Hence, in my opinion, the reaction to the CA scandal and Zuckerberg apology has been bordering on paranoia and totally unnecessary. I’d be more worried about the friend request you accepted from a stranger on FB. However, it is important to be aware of some basic safety precautions one must adopt while networking online. Following is such a guideline in no particular order of importance:
- Know all about the Privacy settings on Facebook and learn how to use them to best suit you. These include settings on who can see your posts, who can contact you and how you can block/ban a troll or an unwanted attention giver.
- Connect with the right people on the right network. If a business associate you met over a power point presentation sends you a Facebook friend request, politely decline and send a connection request on Linkedin instead. It is generally accepted to connect with friends and family over Facebook, business contacts over Linkedin and acquaintances who share your hobbies/interests over Instagram or other specialty networks.
- Be smart about the kind of information you share on social networks. If you share photographs of children, ensure that the post can only be seen by trusted friends and family and turn off sharing by others. Never reveal passwords, dates of travel or any other information that could potentially reward a stalker or a con artist.
- Most importantly, don’t believe everything you see/read on social network. Fake news and hate campaigns abound on these networks to cater to the basal instincts of humans and it would be wise to not take everything at face value. Companies like Cambridge Analytica thrive on your laziness to do the research and peddle malicious campaigns for you to share. Do the research and vet a news before you believe or share it.