User data and privacy was a hot topic in 2018. Tech giants Facebook and Google came under fire after a series of scandals related to their users’ personal information. But do these companies, whose products we use daily, really sell your data?
The furore over privacy started with the now famous Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal which broke in March 2018. The harvesting of 50 million Facebook members’ data for use by political campaigns is described as a watershed moment in public understanding of data privacy.
Since then it has come to light that Facebook had a program which put advertisers in touch with data brokerage companies, something they called Partner Categories.
Data brokerage firms such as Acxiom, Experian and Oracle Data Cloud collect information from a myriad of sources, including loyalty card schemes, surveys, census information and so on. Using this data, they build a profile on the kind of person you are and sell that to advertisers.
Facebook put marketers in contact with these data brokerage firms. The marketers were then able to use Facebook to create incredibly refined and targeted ad campaigns based on both your online and offline data. Scary stuff.
Facebook has since ended its partnerships with these data brokers, possibly due to the backlash over Cambridge Analytica and user data in general.
However, critics say that we should not assume Facebook’s decision to deprecate their Partnership Coverage program comes from a place of altruism.
American privacy lawyer Joel Winston says, ‘Facebook is officially in the data-mining business’ and that this move is ‘a definitive signal that Facebook’s data capture and identity-targeting technology is light-years ahead of its competitors’.
Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, Frank Pasquale, has a specialist interest in information technology. He warns: ‘We don’t know enough about Facebook’s data trove to know whether their abandonment of Partner Categories helps users avoid privacy invasions.’
Pasquale continued, ‘Even if we did have that knowledge, we have little reason to trust Facebook to actually follow through on it. It may well change course once media attention has gone elsewhere.’
Google had its own data scandal making headlines in October 2018. Up to half a million users of its Google Plus social media network had their private data – name, date of birth and profile picture – potentially exposed by a security flaw.
The flaw was discovered in the same month the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal broke but was covered up by Google until October.
Although Google says there is no evidence the data was accessed or misused, the incident thrust the tech giant into the conversation about data privacy.
Like Facebook, Google collects an extraordinary amount of data from its users – gigabytes of it. The company has seven products that each have more than a billion daily users which makes this possible, and makes Google the leading digital advertising company in the world.
Whether you use Android, Gmail, Maps or other Google products, your data is being collected, stored and used for targeted advertising campaigns, or as Google calls it ‘tailored content’.
‘Google is walking a very fine line,’ David Yoffie, Professor of International Business Administration at Harvard Business School told NBC News.
‘Search, plus Android gives Google amazing insight into individual behaviour. Google’s stated privacy policies seem adequate, but the question that I cannot answer is whether Google’s stated policy and actual behaviour are one and the same. Facebook had a stated policy for the last three years which most of us found acceptable, until Cambridge Analytica came to light.’
Good News First?
The good news is: No, Facebook and Google are not selling your data. The bad news is they are gathering, storing and using your information to send you targeted adverts and make billions of dollars.
If you search for mattresses on Google, you can probably expect to encounter bed-related adverts for the next week or so.
Similarly, if you make a status update on Facebook involving, say, rock climbing, you can bet on seeing a few adverts for rock climbing venues and equipment in the near future.
However, the only way to really stop them from collecting that data in the first place is by not using their products.
No easy task in a world that is increasingly reliant on Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Google Search, Docs, Maps, YouTube and Android.