Why Facebook became the 'poster child' for data misuse

The social media network has faced a torrent of criticism over privacy breaches in recent months

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the opening keynote introducing new Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram privacy features at the Facebook F8 Conference at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California on April 30, 2019. - Got a crush on another Facebook user? The social network will help you connect, as part of a revamp unveiled Tuesday that aims to foster real-world relationships and make the platform a more intimate place for small groups of friends. (Photo by Amy Osborne / AFP)

Facebook continues to grow at a rapid pace in the Middle East - and so does the threat posed to the privacy of its millions of users.

The platform remains the most popular in the region, with more than 180 million people logging on according to figures released in April, a huge rise of 124 million in just five years.

The surge in users, many of whom are unaware of how they are putting their personal data at risk, has proved an open invitation for cyber criminals.

Facebook is also facing a storm of criticism over a string of privacy-related issues, including exposing the passwords of millions of users to its employees.

The National takes a closer look at an issue of global concern.

How can Facebook users fall victim to identity theft?

“Many users in the Middle East don't realise how posting critical information on social media sites - such as Facebook - can be misused in the future,” said Manikandan Thangaraj, vice president at Dubai-based ManageEngine, an IT management firm.

Cyber criminals can use the information, collected from compromised Facebook accounts, along with other details stolen from sources such as bank inventories, Uber and Netflix accounts, to connect the dots and get hold of sensitive information about the targeted victim.

“This aggregated data can then be used for widespread phishing attacks and complete identity theft,” said Mr Thangaraj.

Facebook must be more responsible

In June, Facebook was accused of collecting confidential details of 187,000 users, some as young as 13, through its now non-operational app Research that paid users secretly for access. Users were compensated monthly in the form of gift cards.

“Platforms like Facebook have become an integral part of our lives and it would be incredibly difficult to stop using social media altogether. Therefore, in order for users to maintain their digital privacy, it is important for them to behave responsibly,” said Maher Yamout, senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab.

Is your data safe with Facebook?

One thing is clear – users are not in complete control of their online information, no matter how strongly Facebook claims that their data is safe.

In July, US regulators endorsed an approximate $5 billion (Dh18.3bn) privacy settlement with Facebook to resolve the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, following a long-running probe into the tech giant's handling of user data.

A major investigation was launched in March of last year after news that Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm hired by President Donald Trump’s campaign, obtained user data from a researcher who created a personality quiz app on the social network.

Last September, Facebook said it discovered a security breach that affected almost 50 million accounts.

The social-media network said in a statement that it had fixed the breach, which allowed hackers to take over people’s accounts.

“One thing that Facebook’s recent data breach incidents taught us is that we are not aware of how our data is bought, sold or used,” Salam Yamout, Middle East regional director of the Internet Society.

“Companies that hold personal and sensitive information need to be extra vigilant about protecting their users’ data. Even those who are vigilant are also vulnerable,” added Ms Yamout.

Are there more entities accused of playing foul with users’ data?

Industry experts say recent revelations concerning Facebook are only tip of the iceberg for the industry.

“It’s not just Facebook. It’s only unfortunate for them that they have become the poster child for data misuse, but I expect many more cases from other companies who are using data in ways that contravene regulations,” said Duncan Brown, chief security strategist, Europe Middle East and Asia, at technology company Forcepoint.