Erasing the word 'facebook' on a tablet screen

Facebook – Who’s got your data?

By Diane Stickland on 16th May 2018

Who doesn’t use social media these days?

With its growing popularity worldwide, most people have registered with some form of online social networking.  Subscribers range from children as young as 13 years old to members of the older generation who only recently, were baffled by modern technology and refused to connect to the outside world via the internet.

Well ‘Connecting the World’ is what Facebook does best, and whilst top social media sites such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest attract millions of followers, none come close to Facebook’s 2.2 billion monthly active users.

One of the most concerning aspects of social media platforms such as Facebook is security, but just how safe is the information we provide to these companies?  When we sign up for an account with Facebook, do we really know where all our personal information is going?  There has been a recent media frenzy about the information we unknowingly give away and who uses it – and Facebook has been in the eye of the storm.

In March this year, The New York Times and The Guardian announced that more than 50 million Facebook users had personal data shared without their knowledge or permission.  The company at fault was Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm who are based in the UK, and were employed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign back in 2016.  The company retrieves information from various sources, including Facebook, to predict voting behaviour and provide key demographics based on the data supplied.

B/W image of poster on telegraph pole with words 'big data'

Unbeknown to Facebook users, the firm were allegedly acquiring data belonging to them, and when Facebook found out in 2015, they asked Cambridge Analytica to destroy it all.  Nothing more was said on the matter, until it transpired last month that they hadn’t destroyed it, and The New York Times and The Guardian reported the alarming news to the world.  Facebook’s image was damaged and announced that it would no longer use Cambridge Analytica, banning the company from buying ads or running Facebook pages.

We have now learned that Cambridge Analytica didn’t work alone, they teamed up with Cambridge University researcher, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, whose company, Global Science Research (GSR), designed a personality app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’.  Around 270,000 people downloaded the app on Facebook, which in return allowed GSR to retrieve data about where they lived and enabled access to their friends lists and their personal information.  Dr Kogan then submitted all this personal data to Cambridge Analytica, who used it to build psychographic profiles.  Users of the ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ app were oblivious that their information was being gathered for political use.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is just one high-profile example of personal information being exploited via social media, without users’ permission.

As a regular Facebook user, like other subscribers, I enjoy reading about my friend’s antics and adventures.

I also enjoy sharing news with my friends and family overseas, who I don’t see very often.

More and more frequently, however, saturating my news feed are those seemingly innocent fun quizzes.  Some of my Facebook friends participate more than others, and then share which ‘Star Wars’ character they would be, or who they were in a previous life.

What they perhaps haven’t realised is, they’ve just willingly provided these sites with their most personal information:

  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Middle name
  • Mother’s maiden name.

The same information that they would use to set up financial accounts.  Personal data that only they would know, has now been made available to all sorts of people online.  I wonder how many stopped to consider why these fun quizzes needed to know what our childhood best friend’s name was, or our favourite colour is?  How is gathering a wealth of personal information relevant to the answer?

We now know that the sole purpose of gathering this information was not what we initially thought it was – a simple bit of fun, and are now concerned where this information has gone, what is it being used for and why.

Identity theft is one possibility, with many of those ‘fun’ quizzes being designed for that sole purpose.  Police departments in the US have warned that devious hackers are ‘setting these up as a get to know each other better game.’ Using different data sources, to allow them to build a profile of you, which then opens up opportunities to take credit out in your name or hack into your other frequently accessed online services or bank accounts.

Co-founder of WhatsApp, Brian Acton, who sold the company to Facebook back in 2014 for $19billion, has started an online campaign on Twitter called #deletefacebook, and is urging users to delete their accounts.  But is deleting really the answer because let’s face it, Facebook will probably have a database containing all our private information, just like Google who also hold all our private data, so deleting it won’t make the problem disappear.

So, what can we do?

Facebook have begun the process of posting a notice on every user’s timeline titled ‘Protecting Your Information’, where a link will show them which apps they use and all the information they’ve shared with those apps.   In response to the privacy scandal Facebook has also released a bulk app removal tool as a quicker and easier way to help remove third-party apps that you no longer want to have access to your data.

Knowing what we know now about how easy it is to access our personal information, we should also be more vigilant and take complete control of what we allow people to see.  Facebook has almost become an essential part of our lives, it has given us an opportunity to keep in touch with those who are dear to us, but who are not physically present in our lives.  We share life events and photographs of our achievements, replacing letters and emails in a fast-moving world.  For some, Facebook is an avenue to express emotions and share opinions.

With a bit of careful research, it is possible to enjoy what Facebook, and other social media platforms can offer us, without compromising our privacy.  It’s not rocket science, think one step ahead and be smart.

General information about online safety in the UK.