Can we ever take back control of our data on social media?

Tech giants have been quick at admitting misuse of users' information but none has offered any solutions.

By Shalini Verma (Virtual & Real)

Published: Mon 7 Jan 2019, 8:17 PM

Last updated: Mon 7 Jan 2019, 10:20 PM

Last week, an email from Google Apps team ominously stood out amidst the deluge of daily emails in my inbox. The carefully worded email was peppered with adjectives like 'inadvertent' and 'unintended'. I will spare you the morbid details but suffice it to say that Google+ had shared my personal information with another app that I use. Google was now in damage control mode, much like a boy who prudently discloses his misdemeanour to his parents before they hear about it from the class teacher. The email was intended to retain the trust that I could have lost, had I heard this from another source.
Ever since we took to social media, we have been generously using our Facebook and Google credentials to login into a plethora of apps we use. Yet, along with the credentials, we are also signing away our personal information. At the very least, we share what Facebook calls the public profile. This includes name, gender, username and user ID (account number), profile picture, cover photo and networks (such as our school network). Some apps need a lot more of our personal data. A travel app uses pretty granular information such as my hometown, my current city, my friends list and the list of Facebook pages I like.
Our data is vulnerable even when friends in our network share their personal data. As consumers of social media, we signed up for sharing our personal data with our eyes wide shut.
It was hard to argue with the convenience of remembering just one set of login credentials. I thought to myself how bad could this be? I am not a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg. How important could my data be? It all seemed pretty harmless until the Cambridge Analytica saga unfolded. The Facebook exposé revealed the reckless manner in which Facebook let a political consultancy get access to 50 million users' personal data that the consultancy used to influence Facebook users during the US presidential campaign. This means that an organisation can insidiously provide selective information and misinformation on Facebook to doctor public opinion. Statistics show that people on an average spend 35 minutes daily on social media.
It gets worse when we consider the cookies that creep into our personal computers or digital devices when we access Facebook. For instance, allowing it to track our browsing habits even if we are not on Facebook. Recently, I was looking for bikes on Amazon. Soon after I was inundated by ads of bikes on Facebook and Google search. Not surprising when it turns out that Facebook was sharing a lot more information with companies such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, and Spotify, through a programme called Instant Personalization. For instance, Amazon could see users' names and contact information through their friends. Spotify was even helping itself to our private Facebook messages.
Facebook has clarified about this programme in a blog post. Evidently a large part of the programme was shut down. Yet the damage may have already been done. Facebook admits that it cannot take responsibility for the personal data that these partners already have. There has been intense public outrage over social media overlooking the potential risks of sharing so much information.
But wait. Didn't we agree to their terms and conditions that run into pages? We knew that Facebook would share our data with the apps we use. As Facebook puts it, people had to explicitly sign in to Facebook first to use a partner's messaging feature.
While social media sites have not seen a mass exodus of users, they have lost their trust. A recent US poll conducted by Harris Poll for Fortune, shows that Facebook's trust was greatly eroded. Facebook was rated much below Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. Ironically, Facebook lost out to Amazon that had 'special access' to personal data from Facebook. Trust cannot be secured with 10 pages of legal language in the terms and conditions. It is a pledge to do everything within a company's means to protect the information we entrusted it with; just as a bank protects our life savings.
Behind this sharing economy is the lucrative digital advertising market that is in excess of $100 billion. Arguably large digital platforms are providing free services, and so they need to generate advertising revenue. But as they enjoy an inordinate share of users and digital advertising spend, they have become extremely powerful. They have realised that with power comes responsibility.
They have started to clean up by auditing the shared data, and have become more transparent about lapses. Regulators have stepped in with privacy laws such as European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
We may not be paying money for the services, but we pay with our data, so we expect checks and balances. So, our personal data does matter. Not in the least because it can be used to sway public opinion with catastrophic effect. We must practise self-policing when sharing our data, whereas online consumer platforms must know where to draw the line when sharing our information with their partners.
Shalini Verma is the CEO of PIVOT technologies

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