Political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica collected data from 50 million people’s Facebook profiles to target voters in the 2016 American Presidential race. This brings up an important question: What kind of data are we are putting online and how is it being used?
What Data About Us is Being Collected?
Social media companies require users to provide basic details about themselves in exchange for their services. This includes anything from your name, date of birth and email addresses to where you live.
Seemingly unimportant, the data starts to snowball when friends and their information are added too. Then taken with apps you use that require you to sign in with Facebook and websites visited on the same browser when you’re still signed in, it becomes a lot of data. This information can be used to make many accurate assumptions on who you are and what you’re interested in.
What Happens to the Data?
Social media companies sell your personal information to advertisers to earn money. Facebook alone has 2.2 billion users worldwide and handles 30,000 terabytes of data from its platform. This information is then sold to analytics firms and advertisers so it can then be used to analyse audiences and create ads you’re more likely to click on.
Privacy and Consent
Although people willingly sign up and provide their personal data to use a social network, they often don’t know the extent of what’s being collected or how it’s being used.
Most people don’t read the terms of services agreements that explain how their data ends up being used by a company. A Deloitte survey of 2,000 U.S consumers showed that 91% did not read the terms of service agreement when presented to them. For younger users, this percentage was 97%. But as the information is technically there, it means that people can not sue these companies for using their data in ways they don’t consent to.
Why is This a Problem?
A study has found that exposure to targeted content on Facebook can influence what people post to Facebook, and thus most likely their thoughts and mood. Manipulating the newsfeeds of 698,003 people, researchers found that more negative news feeds led to more negative statuses and vice versa.
This all becomes a problem when we consider how this data can be used to target individuals. During the 2016 US presidential election for example, Facebook ads believed to have been bought by Russia were used to target 126 million Americans who had the emotional profile that may vote for Trump. Although there is not proof that this actually caused Trump to be voted in, some say it was a contributing factor.
To conclude, people who use social media generate huge amounts of personal data. This is then sold on to companies to create targeted ads that could sway anything from consumer behaviour to election results.