The recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook has revealed how the data of 87 million people were improperly shared, bringing into question something that many of us rarely consider or take for granted — the safety and privacy of our data.
Initial estimates by Facebook put the number of users whose data was shared improperly with Cambridge Analytica (an offshoot of the SCL Group that described themselves as “psychological warfare experts”) at 50 million, but that number has now increased to 87 million. This is unacceptable and should encourage users to ask — who, if anyone, can we can trust with our data?
What information does Facebook have?
If you access your Facebook account settings, you can download an archive that contains the data Facebook has on you. Mine was over 3GB and included details about my contacts, my interests, and even my past relationships as well as private conversations. This isn’t the sort of information most people would be happy to share with strangers but it’s there, and, as proved by the scandal, it can be wrongly shared and used.
Social media may be public, but that doesn’t excuse misuse of our data
If you use social media, then to some extent you have agreed to make certain parts of yourself public, but that doesn’t mean we should accept our sensitive data being used for purposes we didn’t sanction.
Facebook and other companies collect and store our data under the guise of improving customer experience, but it would be naïve to accept this. Facebook does not charge a fee to its users profiting instead from advertising, so it has a vested interested in knowing our online-selves as well as possible. This is necessary for Facebook to tailor its ads to individuals and cover the cost of operating a centralized platform.
Our data is valuable. It is our online identity and can tell others a great deal about us, and we should be extra critical when it is being used to sway our opinion. It doesn’t matter how outsiders claim to use our data, whether they want to convince us to try a certain brand of scent or sway our vote, one fact always applies — the data is ours, it should be treated with respect and above all else, protected.
We should consider decentralizing our data
“This was a major breach of trust…we have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data, and if we can’t do that, then we don’t deserve to have the opportunity to serve people.” – Mark Zuckerberg speaking to CNBC.
Facebook allowed the app that improperly shared its users’ data. That it breached users trust goes without saying, and perhaps it is not enough to apologize and promise to make improvements because platforms that handle our data are continuously failing to meet the demands of the modern technological world.
If big data companies cannot be trusted to protect our data, then there is an argument for taking that responsibility away from them completely. Blockchain technology could provide the means to achieve this. In fact, there are already many projects looking to use DLT to manage data safely, but there is a problem, and as with most issues in the crypto-space, it is a question of how to encourage widespread adoption.
A great ideal but it won’t be easy
Facebook and other platforms aren’t widely used because they’re trusted or because they are the safest. They are used because they have become an essential part of modern life, and this will make it hard, despite recent news, to provide an alternative.
Decentralization sounds great in theory, but nobody will move to a new social-media platform if nobody else is using it. The real challenge will be to provide a model that centralized platforms simply can’t contend with. Token rewards, ownership of data, and safety are great incentives, but those won’t be enough.
Facebook, for all its faults, has a lot going for it — it is easy to use, has a wide range of fun apps built in, and people are still using it despite the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The technology is there to offer an alternative, but what we’re missing is an idea that captures the imaginations of the masses.
Michael is an English and Creative writing graduate of Liverpool John Moore’s University, a former editor of several magazines, and a crypto-currency enthusiast. He is mostly interested in crypto-legislation and the potential of decentralized technology to change the world.