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Facebook data debacle – is it really a surprise?

There’s a well-worn saying in marketing circles: “If you’re not paying, you’re the product.” In light of that, should the current furore around Facebook data really be a surprise?

Facebook app icon on a phone, surrounded by other social media app icons

It’s all started with the case of Cambridge Analytica, which took swathes of the information Facebook holds on users, which is probably shouldn’t have had, and may or may not have used it to sway the US election and the Brexit referendum.

This has opened many people’s eyes to the extent of data held on them, but it’s also highlighted why privacy laws need to keep up with the data economy.

This collecting and trading of data has gone on for many years now. It’s only going to become a bigger thing as vast amounts of fresh information is collected every single minute of every single day. And the more information services like Facebook have on us, the more accurate they can get in identifying what we like and dislike, where we go, who we know and how we are likely to want to spend our money.

There are two key points here:

  1. This is not a genuine surprise to most people. The debate about targeted advertising has raged for years. It’s probably true that only a tiny fraction of the people on the planet will have read the full terms and conditions and privacy agreements when they signed up for Google or Snapchat, etc. But it’s very hard to argue that people don’t realise their data is being collected and analysed.
  2. We need better laws to stop this turning fully into a data Wild West. The good news is, progress is being made on that front. If you’re in business you can’t have failed to learn about GDPR, unless you’ve been living under a rock. The General Data Protection Regulation comes into force fully from May 25 this year. Yes, it’s a big extra burden on business and any organisation that holds data, but it’s essential to bring the law up-to-date, give regulators better powers to protect us and, essentially, make businesses manage data properly so they can legitimately act on and profit from it without harming people.

Should delete your Facebook data?

As I write the hashtag #deletefacebook is trending on Twitter. Some people might decide to do just that. Some will do it out of principle. For others it will be a knee-jerk reaction (or because they don’t use it much any more anyway!). What won’t change is that unless you don’t want to engage anywhere, your data will still be collected.

Even if you lock down the settings around what you are prepared to share, even the fact that you logged in, the time you did it, where you did it from and on what device and browser or app, will still be recorded – and that still has value.

We live in this world now and data will make it better. It tells us truths about how people behave at both the micro and macro level and will enable us to improve health, transport and many other areas of life. Is it really that bad to have more relevant ads put in front of you than the rubbish you don’t want to see?

What we need to guard against is the darker, uncontrolled use of data by actors who would try to shape society to their ends, be they nation states, corporations, political movements or ambitious individuals.

In that we have work to do and we all have a duty to remain vigilant. We should welcome this current drama as a wake-up call which has put the issue front and centre for many more people.

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