Tuesday 17 September 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Our data is being used to manipulate and control us - so where is the outrage?'

Breach: Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook provided the personal data of 87 million users to British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Photo: Bloomberg
Breach: Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook provided the personal data of 87 million users to British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Photo: Bloomberg
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

Mark Zuckerberg famously called the first Facebook users "dumb f**ks" for handing their personal information over to him. We all signed up anyway.

Now we know the social media sites we innocently use have the ability to social-engineer our world, shouldn't more of us consider signing out?

Many of us already have. Facebook has 300,000 fewer users in Ireland this year compared to last, although 2.6 million of us still use the site. The analysis from Mulley Communications shows this is a decrease of 10pc.

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The 19-year-old Zuckerberg might have just been boasting to his friend about how stupid we all are - he wasn't to know the data trove Facebook would become nearly two decades later. As Facebook grew over the past 16 years from Harvard dorm room upstart to a publicly traded monster, it has collected a near-unfathomable amount of data about its more than 1.59 billion active users - that's us - willingly sharing our entire lives without thinking about how valuable our information might be or, in the wrong hands, how dangerous.

Netflix's new documentary 'The Great Hack' shows in detail how Facebook provided the personal data of 87 million users to British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. The data was used during the 2016 Brexit referendum and US presidential election later that year. Did Cambridge Analytica sway the election and put Trump in power? I don't know. Did data from Facebook play a big part in electoral strategy? Absolutely.

It led to new privacy and data access policies at Facebook and the suspension of hundreds of apps. But, earlier this year, user data was still showing up in places it shouldn't. Researchers at UpGuard, a cybersecurity firm, found troves of user information hiding in plain sight, inadvertently posted publicly on Amazon's cloud computing servers.

By now, most of us know - no matter what our political leanings - that the data we give up to social media sites (as well as what we've bought, our browsing history and other personal information) is bought and used by companies which want to sell us things. Young people are making more use of privacy settings on social media, according to a 2018 survey by Studyclix.ie.

Almost nine out of 10 second-level students who responded to the poll said they have concerns about their online privacy. Of the 5,500 young people who took part, 89pc were worried or very worried about this issue and their personal data.

I get it. There are trade-offs when we use digital services. But most of us are utterly oblivious to the amount of information captured, how it is used and who it is shared with. Yes, an email address or a birth date is a single, discrete piece of a jigsaw; but when tiny bits of information are incessantly given to an ever-consuming, ever-calculating algorithm, they add up to a shockingly complete picture of us.

Big Tech knows all this stuff because we told them by filling in our personal information, because we told them by liking pages and sharing links, and because it follows us across the web and tracks what we do and look at.

The data is legitimate data about us - what we like, what we don't like, companies and causes we support, our relationship status, our sexual orientation, our preferred pronouns and our hobbies. All details that we willingly offer up to the tech gods every day. But where will it end?

Here we are, a few years on from the Cambridge Analytica scandal that rocked 87 million Facebook accounts, and have we changed? Nah.

We're still sharing every moment of our lives, including sensitive data such as photos of our children's first days at school, health updates and political views. And we're doing that while knowing that social media companies are collecting this data.

The internet is a vast, wonderful, dangerous place, and we're only beginning to understand the ramifications of things like social media, forums, blogs and other places we have so eagerly embraced.

We're only beginning to realise the extent to which this data harvesting is being used to reshape our world and it is clear that we should all be afraid of the unknown digital landscape underneath our curated timelines.

So what do you need to do?

Don't give access to your social media account details to any apps you don't use, and don't be so tap-happy to click 'login with Facebook'. Think about your posts because once your data is out there, there's really no getting it back.

There are no simple answers when it comes to privacy, but there must be guard-rails, safety nets and limits that could be put into place to restore order and give us back power over our own information.

I'm not sure that's going to be enough - I deleted social media a long time ago.

The Great Hack is a warning. There will be more Cambridge Analyticas. Facial recognition and artificial intelligence have the potential to take our data to frightening new heights.

I'm just sad at how resigned and fatalistic we all seem to be towards this new online world of surveillance and manipulation.

Where is the outrage?

Irish Independent

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