Ever since Facebook hit the internet in 2004, there has been an ongoing conversation about user privacy. Especially, in how it can be achieved on platforms designed to be “social”.
In 2021, this conversation reached fever pitch when the personal data of over 500 million users was breached. With this, information including names, birth dates, phone numbers, email addresses, and even home addresses was leaked online by hackers.
The result of scandals like this is a further emphasis on governments and social media platforms to formulate a robust data protection framework. So has that actually happened yet, and can we expect our user privacy to get better in the future?
The first thing to note here is how important ads are to social media platforms. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other form of social media, ads provide the cogs that keep the network churning. Facebook, for instance, makes around 97.9% of its global revenue from advertising. Thus, the problem cannot be solved by simply removing them.
Having said that, it’s not the ads that are the problem, but the way in which they are curated. Every day, social media platforms collect and harness data given to them by users to push personalized advertisements. These are targeted to match a consumer's personal preferences for optimum engagement.
The problem with this is that users don’t always know who is collecting their data or what they are using it for. Additionally, they do not know what is being done to keep their data safe. This means they don't know how to keep it out of the hands of malicious third parties.
This came to a head in 2018, when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica – a political consulting firm – had been harvesting the data of over 87 million Facebook users. These users had not been effectively protected by Facebook. They leveraged this data to help their clients expand voter bases. Thus, presenting political advertisements to users without their consent.
Since that moment, individuals have become more aware of data collection and what they can do to prevent it. There are now ways to delete personal information from Google, stop spam emails and messages, and opt out of data brokers. Not to mention new legislation implemented around the world to control how companies like Facebook harness and protect data.
The legislation in question demands more transparency between companies and users. Thus, making it clear how their data will be collected, and what it is collected for. Furthermore, users want to know how it is going to be secured. But there is still more to be done, especially where social media is concerned.
When users create a social media account, they are still leaving a digital footprint that can be taken advantage of. In fact, most of them are doing it passively. Even since the Cambridge Analytica scandal that supposedly changed the world, there is still not enough transparency. Especially, about what kind of data users are offering companies without their knowledge. However, this can lead to a lot of issues down the line. This includes offensive targeted ads and the potential for cyberattacks.
As mentioned before, there are new regulations and legislation that social media companies have to follow. Not to mention big tech businesses marketing through Facebook. Key policies include lawfulness, transparency, data minimization, purpose limitation, and storage limitation.
But with 4.8 billion people using social media worldwide, it has become increasingly difficult for social media and big tech companies to keep to a higher standard. Especially, when ensuring complete user data privacy. Over the next decade, there will likely be more incidents that incite further conversation and legislation. But until then, it is crucial that users take their data into their own hands. Thus, they should do what they can to protect their online experience.