Users are no guinea pigs, Mr Facebook

Last Updated: Mon, Jun 11, 2018 11:34 hrs
Facebook (Image Courtesy: AP)

New Delhi: A couple of months back, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked if users data on his platform was at risk, he unambiguously said 'No, adding that there was no way the data of his users could be breached or "improperly shared" on a massive scale.

The Cambridge Analytica data scandal proved him wrong -- and then, under intense media scrutiny, a couple of late admissions about users' personal data being accessed by third parties revealed that all was not well behind the firewalls and Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven systems at Facebook.

Fresh reports surfaced last week that Facebook provided select companies "customised data-sharing deals" that let them gain "special access to user records".

Another media report exposed how the social network allowed about 60 device makers, including Chinese smartphone players, access personal information of users and their friends. Facebook later admitted sharing users' data with Chinese company Huawei, along with three other China-based smartphone makers -- Lenovo, OPPO and TCL.

The bare fact is that the 2.19 billion monthly active users (217 million in India) on Facebook constitute the world's biggest marketplace and the mining of personal data drives profits for both the social media giant and its advertisers.

In 2017, the social media network's advertising revenue grew strongly at 49 per cent to reach $39.9 billion.

Facebook's mobile advertising revenue represented approximately 91 per cent of advertising revenue for the first quarter of 2018 -- up from approximately 85 per cent of advertising revenue in the first quarter of 2017.

The plain truth is that advertisers need a constant flow of data for a targeted, customised approach to reach a bigger audience. Facebook has a vast pool of data that, when curated into specific data sets, helps push ads according to various age and other groups.

Last year, a confidential 23-page Facebook document prepared by the company's two top Australian executives outlined how the social network can target "moments when young people need a confidence boost" in pinpoint detail.

Facebook collected the information on a person's moods -- including feeling "worthless", "overwhelmed" and "nervous" -- and then divulged the same to advertisers who used it to target them.

The company later admitted it was wrong to target children and apologised. "We have opened an investigation to understand the process failure and improve our oversight. We will undertake disciplinary and other processes as appropriate," a Facebook spokeswoman told The Australian newspaper.

It will, thus, be naïve to think that Facebook was completely caught off-guard when it came to knowing about users' data being used for various purposes, including political gain during elections.

All is not, however, yet lost for Facebook when it comes to showing respect for the humongous data it has.

While apologies are being written every other day - including "we are learning from our mistakes" - a humble admission that every bit of users' data was sacrosanct, was not up for sale or to be shared with third parties should have come first.

Then comes the second part: Looking at how other tech companies like Microsoft or Apple are holding their forte when it comes to data security, shun arrogance and forge strategic alliances to gain deeper insights.

The third and final part is to abide by the law of the land, irrespective of the country.

"Persons or organisations which collect and manage your personal information must protect it from misuse and must respect certain rights of the data owners which are guaranteed by EU law," says the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that came into force on May 25.

Facebook has promptly introduced changes to its privacy policy regarding GDPR but the effort has to be done across the board for all countries.

Before Zuckerberg hires 20,000 people to secure his users' data by the end of this year -- as he promised the US Senate and EU lawmakers -- the biggest lesson for Facebook in 2018 is that users are not guinea pigs and their online expressions must be kept encrypted, in safe lockers somewhere on Cloud.

Taking users' personal space for granted cannot go on for long, especially at a time when millennials are becoming more aware of their digital rights and governments the world over are busy drafting laws to deal with the new social media reality.




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