For too long, internet goliaths have shown little regard for their billions of users who surrender their personal data, burying privacy policies among endless terms and conditions. With little transparency, smaller entities have proliferated, exploiting data harvesting for advertising, analysis or, more recently, to aid political campaigns. One such company, UK-based Cambridge Analytica, is this week in the eye of a media storm amid accusations it used the data of 50 million Facebook users to assist Donald Trump's presidential campaign. As the Facebook takes pains to reassure users, British and American lawmakers have approached chief executive Mark Zuckerberg for answers. But while outrage has focused on Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, the problem runs deeper. With users rightly seeking answers, it appears we are approaching a crossroads. But after years of reckless data collection, the notion that we should control the data underpinning our digital identities looks increasingly archaic.
According to a Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower, a professor named Aleksandr Kogan used Facebook in 2014 to disseminate a personality quiz designed, he claimed, for academic research. Using now-closed loopholes, he was able to collect the data of 50 million people from a pool of 270,000 quiz participants, by amassing data on their friends. Until he sold it to Cambridge Analytica – which used the data to create psychological profiles and selectively deliver pro-Trump material – Prof Kogan's conduct aligned with Facebook's policies. Though the platform told Cambridge Analytica to destroy the data in 2015, it did not ban the company until last week. These problems are not new and will likely worsen. For users it is an unsettling reminder of how much information and control we have surrendered to internet giants like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter, which subsist on personal data. It is a transaction we largely accept in order to connect with distant family and friends. But where should we draw the line?
Certainly when social media starts to influence the democratic process. Facebook's senior cadre has already faced questions from US lawmakers regarding its use by Russian outfits in the 2016 election. In Britain there are valid questions about its role in the Brexit vote. Social media can be a force for good, democratising information and making our lives easier. But it can also spread lies, which rattle around in political echo-chambers. As The National reported, Facebook has garnered criticism for failing to address vile hate speech that exacerbated recent anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Revelations about Cambridge Analytica have torn open an ongoing privacy debate. Users should educate themselves about data protection, while regulators should insist on understandable privacy policies. But with social media increasingly ubiquitous, clawing back the privacy many of us surrendered long ago will be an arduous task. Ultimately, the stock market may be the firmest arbiter of what happens next and how strong the appetite is for change. Facebook shares slid by 8 per cent earlier in the week. Such declines in stock price are rarely sustainable in the longer term.