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What Facebook Means When It Talks About Your “Data”

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Facebook has some ‘splainin to do.

If you happened to see the social media giant’s co-founder and CEO looking mighty uncomfortable on television this week it’s because he was called to testify before the U.S. Congress regarding a data scandal that’s rocked the organization and sent its stock plummeting.

There’s much ado about this data issue, but what does it actually mean? What are we talking about when we talk about our Facebook “data”?

Simply put, the images and posts we make about our kids, pets, hobbies, vacations, political leanings and favourite brands actually represent, on aggregate, a treasure trove of information about ourselves and our preferences.

When exposed to third parties, usually via one of the hundreds of thousands of apps that integrate with Facebook (such as games, quizzes and surveys), your data paints a picture of you that can be sold to companies who will then use it to market their products and services directly to you, or in the case of the company behind the recent scandal, Cambridge Analytica, to target voters with appealing messages.

To be clear, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t testifying before Congress because America wants to protect its citizens from Sephora pop-up ads. He’s there because Cambridge Analytica is said to have harvested the data of 87 million Facebook users, allegedly on behalf of Russia, to help get Donald Trump elected.

So ya, it’s kind of a big deal. But here’s where it gets weird.

If you’re a customer of Saks Fifth Avenue, the Under Armour MyFitnessPal app, or Uber you might have received a notice that your credit card and/or personal information is at risk because the company had been hacked. But the Facebook mess was not the result of a hacking or a breach in security. By agreeing to an app’s terms of service (which few of us ever bother to read) we are giving these third parties access to our Facebook profiles. Facebook integration with our favourite apps might make logins and sign-ups easier, but it can be at the expense of your privacy.

Unfortunately, even if you didn’t take the quiz about what kind of Muppet you are or which piece of fruit you most resemble, your data could still be at risk because until 2015, when Facebook changed its policies, giving a third party access to your data also gave it access to your friend’s data. In other words, if your bestie wanted to find out what kind of fruit she was before 2015, your data could be caught up in this too.

Our data’s security becomes even trickier to monitor and control when you consider that even though you can see which applications you gave permission to, you can’t see the ones your friend(s) did. This explains why tens of millions were affected by the recent scandal even though many had likely taken the right precautions.

So if this was more or less consensual on the part of the user, why the fuss? If Facebook tried to protect us in 2015 and we kept clicking “I agree” on third party apps, how can we blame Facebook? Because the central argument, the major reason Mark Zuckerberg had to get up and put on a suit this week instead of his trademark hoodie is that (in addition to the whole Russian thing) Facebook should have known this was a possible outcome, and it should have done more to protect its users.

So where do we go from here? If we’re not ready or willing to #DeleteFacebook but want to be more savvy about our data, what should we do?

We can start by updating our privacy settings and encouraging our friends to do the same. We can read the terms of service for every Facebook app we want to engage with and decline any who require access to our profiles. Awareness is also key, as is evaluating every post with a critical eye by asking ourselves things like: what does this say about me? Is it something I would want others to know? How would I feel if this information was used against me or used in ways I’m not expecting? Do I want companies I haven’t voluntarily given my information to to have it? Do I want them knowing my kids’ names and ages?

Unlike the missives sent to Inspector Gadget, our Facebook messages do not self-destruct. Instead, they stick around and build a nice little profile of who we are and what we like. For some us this, this is of little concern. For others, its evidence of a so-called nanny state where big corporations, even government, know more about us than we’re comfortable with.

The best defence, as they say, is a good offence and our best offensive strategy might be to not put that information out there in the first place. When you’re on it, Facebook feels like a community of “friends” who want to share and connect. But in reality, Facebook is in the data business. It exists to learn as much about its users as possible under the auspices of improving lives and being good for humanity. But the loss of privacy is a trade-off many of us aren’t willing to make.

And before you delete your account in favour of Instagram remember, Facebook owns that platform too.

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