The definition of a social network is rather simple, a few sentences that do not do justice to the reach and power of social media sites. Put simply, social networks expand the individual’s reach and ability to interact with potential business or social contacts by making connections and interfacing with them via sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+. However, this is only a definition and to large extent ignores just how central social networking is to the online lives of billions of individuals across the planet. Recent revelations have also highlighted our complicated relationship with Facebook.
For instance, Facebook, arguably the most powerful social networking site in existence has a staggering 2 billion users on the platform every month. However there is a trade-off. In exchange for ‘free’ use of the sites, users agree to have their use monitored and data gathered in order to be subjected to targeted advertising on the site.
What’s the deal?
In essence the deal is as follows. Users get to post pictures to friends and family, share news or other items of interest and connect with a variety of parties that share their interests. In exchange, Mr. Zuckerberg gets to collect information about the users’ interests so advertisers can send highly targeted ads onto the users Facebook page. You like fishing for bass – you can expect to see ads from fishing equipment companies. Add to this the fact that you may very well like groups or pages that share your interest in bass fishing and you can expect to see even more ads from those selling the latest baits and fishing equipment. Everything you do, either on Facebook directly or on sites that have a Facebook ‘Like’ button, reveals information about you and strengthens your relationship with Facebook.
Facebook users unaware of scope
The problem for the user is privacy. Many users are happy to surrender a little of their right to privacy in order to enjoy the services of social media sites such as Facebook. But at the same time many users are becoming increasingly uncomfortable as more information comes to light on just how much information Facebook and similar social media sites are gathering – and the methods that are being used to gather it. The latest events surrounding Facebook’s use of data is symptomatic of how our relationship with Facebook can be abused. Facebook is being used as an example as it is without doubt the ‘Gorilla in the Sandpit’ when it comes to social media networks.
The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee during the week of April 9 about the social networking sites repeated data privacy problems. The grilling followed revelations that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica may have gained access to the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users. And through the use of that data may have influenced the political process during the last U.S. elections. The questioning and Mark Zuckerberg’s answers seems to have opened up a can of worms as to the practices of the world’s largest social network.
“Even if people are aware of what data they’re telling Facebook about themselves, they’re unaware about the types of correlations that Facebook can make based on that data,” said Bruce Schneier, a security expert and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, “This is normal—we tend to focus on the data collection because that’s easier to see. I think the real problem are the correlations, which are much harder to see.”
It doesn’t matter how careful users are about what information they reveal on Facebook. The company’s advanced range of technologies mean that it is very hard, if not impossible to stay completely untracked as you visit various sites on the web. Facebook knows when you share information with a business, sign up for a frequent buyer program, or even add items to a shopping cart – even if you never make a purchase.
The users are the product
It’s not just your surfing habits that provide Facebook with the data that it finds so valuable. The algorithms used by the company are ever evolving. Facial recognition is by some accounts now being used by the social media giant. Search for pictures where you’re tagged with your best friend and Facebook now has a good idea of what you look like, even when you don’t tag yourself in the future.
Install the Facebook mobile app on your smartphone and Facebook now knows where you are and has a great idea of things you like, where you like to be and the events that you attend – all of which are correlated to give the social media company a better and more granular data set that they can onsell.
Michael Bazzell who collects publicly available online data for his job as a security expert (he’s served as a technical advisor on the hit TV show Mr. Robot) had this to say, “My view is that anything posted to a social network is public data, regardless of the privacy settings. I don’t blame Facebook, I blame all of us for not investigating the companies that want our data. Facebook does not charge its users for access yet makes billions of dollars. The users are the product.”