A few weeks ago I dumped Facebook. It was an ugly breakup. I grabbed my data and slammed the door behind me, with no intention of every returning.
It was the end of a relationship with a social media company that I had used for 10 years. While many people are deleting their accounts because the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal opened their eyes to the extent of Facebook’s data collection, this isn’t the case with me. The recent admission by Facebook that data was being “scraped” from accounts was the final straw, but I have been very aware of the data that companies who work in the digital world collect for years. The breaking point for me isn’t that they have my data, it’s how they treated it.
If a company collects my data in a way that provides a direct benefit to me, and just as importantly, doesn’t sell me out, I’m usually OK with it. But, I’m still careful about what data I do share.
Apple has been taking note of my media preferences since I joined iTunes. Every so often, they will serve up a “favourite” song that I haven’t listened to in years. It serves as a friendly reminder of how long this has been going on. But again, that’s OK. I have a subscription to Apple Music, so offering me music I enjoy is part of what I pay Apple for.
The same goes for Amazon. I’m sure the data they have on me would make for good reading. They know everything from my boot size to the colour of my underwear, and every time I go to Amazon, thanks to this knowledge, they offer me something they think I would like. It’s resulted in several sales. What they’re doing is nothing short of direct advertising, but I put up with it because they are able to suggest things I never knew I wanted. My data produces a two-way relationship that works.
But with Facebook, that two-way relationship never existed. I wasn’t being sold anything — I was what was being sold. In the end, the platform was exploited to take advantage of our data. When a social media company, especially one that doubles as a news feed, uses my data to feed me fake news or other propaganda, it’s time to walk way.
The problem with walking away in the digital age is that you never really know if the data that’s been collected ever really goes away. You have to trust the company, but how can you really ever trust a company whose business model focused on selling your life to the highest bidder? You also can’t know where else that data has gone. Was it used by Cambridge Analytica or any of the thousands of apps that Facebook is now having to retroactively scrutinise?
This, surprisingly, doesn’t bother some people. Many people ask: what harm could it cause?
It’s hard to answer the question, because any answer you give won’t mean much without context and context usually only comes with experience. Tell a teenager that there are people in this world that might want to hurt them, physically, mentally or financially, and they’ll agree, but much in the same way people agree about driving too fast or smoking. It’s something they’ve only read.
But when you get older, and your circle of acquaintances starts to include things like business rivals, former employees, ex-lovers and maybe even an ex-spouse, the reason why you would want to limit your data becomes a lot clearer. Sure that picture of you and your friends having a good time might seem innocent today, but how will it appear in five years? Were you having too good a time for a prospective hiring manager? Will you be able to satisfactorily explain it to a future spouse? Or what if someone just wants to embarrass you? Most importantly, what if you lost control over how the image is displayed? Those answers unfortunately only really become relatable to anyone who’s had to face the consequences, but it’s a question you can easily avoid by just exercising a little caution.
The information you post is only half of the equation. People give away personal information with every click. Every fake news story, every time you authorise an app to access to your contacts, every time you “like” a company. You don’t know who’s watching.
We do know the results however. Over just the past few months we’re heard about how Facebook data was used to sway voters in the US election and in the UK vote on Brexit. It has also been implicated in Africa, Asia and South America. What more evidence do you need that your data is being used against you.
The old days of us posting pictures, comments and locations online without consideration need to be left behind. Data is the new gold; therefore, it should be treated as such. That doesn’t mean that everything you put online is a potential problem, but you should ask yourself not only if what you’re doing online has value to you, but could it be valuable to someone else.