Saturday 21 July 2018

Your social media is catnip to prying eyes

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen

Patricia Casey

The brouhaha about personal data from Facebook being harvested by organisations like Cambridge Analytica shows the power of social media. Its role in gathering information from a personality quiz - available on a Facebook app - to influence the outcome of Brexit and the US General election has caused uproar.

The fact that 50 million accounts were allegedly mined, if reports of the most recent activity is accurate, is incomprehensible.

A simple search of the internet when I entered the words "Facebook Twitter which is better?" revealed some interesting viewpoints. For instance, according to the business website thebalance.com "Facebook allows you to share a lot more information at a glance than Twitter does. You can embed images, videos, and even create interactive pages. Facebook is also a great place to offer colourful coupons, article excerpts, and incentives such as 'like' our page and get 10pc off or we will 'like' you back. The bottom line is that they really cannot be compared. The best way to take advantage of social networking is to use both Facebook and Twitter and treat each as a separate entity with the potential to reach markets in very different ways."

With such personal information readily available why should anybody be surprised that use was made of this asset to influence voters? The groups involved in this were initially described as "right wing" but then it emerged that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton used similar data to engineer particular political outcomes for each. They were lauded for their innovative use of modern communication tools as they siphoned off vast amounts of data and developed knowledge about the preferences and even the TV-viewing habits of swathes of the population. This enabled them to target certain viewers at specific times with focussed advertising. Game developers and even the dating app Tinder used similar tools.

Even the academic world is guilty of using data from Facebook. In 2008, Harvard University and UCLA researchers released a large dataset of all its students compiled from their Facebook accounts for research purposes. In 2014, Cornell University published research claiming to have manipulated the emotions of over 700,000 students using data from their Facebook accounts and published the paper titled 'Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks' in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. There was an outcry at the time that the data was being used to manipulate groups in this way but according to Kalev Leetaru, a senior Fellow at George Washington University Centre for Cyber and Homeland Security, writing in Forbes last week, little has changed regarding the release of data for research purposes, despite claims a few years ago that its use was more tightly regulated than previously so that privacy boundaries were no longer breached.

In 2017, according to Leetaru, a major breech occurred in Australia when over six million children were studied to evaluate when they were at their most vulnerable and experiencing feelings of worthlessness and failure in order to target them for advertisers. The proposal was not ethically reviewed.

Elections and advertising aside, there are many prying eyes who on a daily basis might want information about individuals. For example, prospective employers may want to check out data on those whom they are considering for positions in their companies. Insurance companies, faced with claims of personal injuries following accidents, might want to check the Facebook accounts of claimants for disparities between their claims for injuries and their alleged physical incapacity.

And there is a debate within psychiatry and psychology about whether we should access the accounts of our patients to assist us in compiling their history. These are largely in the public and they may provide mental health professionals with vital information that has been concealed from us. For example, a patient assures her therapist that she is progressing well and that she is no longer suicidal, while on her Facebook page she writes that she is still in a black hole and feeling desperate enough to want to die. Is it not valid to access such accounts to establish if this woman is well again or just faking? It could save her life.

It is clear that over the past decade that the personal has become political and Big Brother has arrived. If the boundaries between public and private life are breached then there are no sacred places to which the person can escape. With great foresight, the late Leonard Cohen wrote in his song 'The Future': "There'll be the breaking of the ancient Western Code/ Your private life will suddenly explode/ Things are going to slide/ Slide in all directions…./The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold/ And overturned the order of the soul".

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