A Challenge to Facebook’s Data Collection Methods

By March 1, 2019 July 4th, 2019 The Tech Lab

Many technology executives will tell you: there’s no such thing as privacy on the Internet. In many ways they are right. Whenever you sign up for any social media website, the information you share is collected in massive data warehouses managed by each of these services. Through partnerships, cross-data sharing agreements and additional mined data from many other sources, these companies append very specific demographic, geographic and psychographic information about you.

The problem is especially acute for those who have provided a lot of information, as required by a company such as Facebook to even open an account, since you probably haven’t read the extremely long Terms of Service and Privacy Disclosure language associated with your account. Many can’t even find the privacy settings on their social media accounts because they aren’t exactly intuitive…by design! As a result, you may have willingly given Facebook carte blanche to vastly enhance its profile of you: your dining habits, your literary or sports activity favorites, jobs you’ve had and jobs you’ve lost, travel tendencies, cars you own, marital status (how many times!), sexual preference, religious affiliations, where you live and on and on. If you look at your own personal resume that may cover 1-2 pages, just imagine if a company like Facebook has the ability to print out hundreds of pages of data about you. How do you feel about that? Do you care or worry that this information is being aggregated in multiple places that could potentially get hacked?

The Goal? Targeted Advertising to You!

The goal of these enhanced data profiles is to allow advertisers (hopefully, LEGITIMATE advertisers) to serve you highly customized and personalized ads. The greater the depth of knowledge Facebook and other social platforms have about you, the further they can go in delivering efficient reach of ads you’ll see as you travel around the web. Depending on whether you’re a consumer or possibly an advertiser yourself, you may have very different impressions of whether this is akin to Skynet (the bad) or the chance to see better ads you may find beneficial (the good).

Zuckerberg Testifies Before Congress - Again!

Facebook has had many run-ins with government agencies over the last few years about its data acquisition and sharing policies with third-parties. They’ve been hauled before Congressional committees, interrogated and investigated by various European government bodies and threatened with fines and penalties that are, for the most part, more nuisance than deterrent for a company of its current market capitalization (almost $500 billion). However, in one case (the Cambridge Analytica affair), the FTC and Facebook are negotiating what could amount to billions of dollars in fines. I doubt we’ll see a settlement figure quite that high, but this could impact Facebook’s finances in the short-term.

Recently, a new line of questioning has appeared, launched by the New York Department of Finance. The issue is that Smartphone app developers have been aggressively sharing customer data with Facebook. Does this violate the privacy laws of this country (or Europe), or have app users actually consented to these arrangements? Time will tell based on what the investigators discover.

From where I sit, there are very serious implications to this new Facebook investigation. I doubt the State of New York will be the only governing body to take interest in this data collection system employed by Facebook and, potentially, by other social platforms. State Attorneys General in multiple jurisdictions may lay claim to violations of consumer protection laws, and consumers themselves via a top-notch litigator could band together in class action suits and seek monetary rewards.

Do Fines and Penalties Work?

If Facebook vacuumed up this information from European app developers/partners covering EU citizens, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) penalties could run into the billions of dollars. This ratchets up the push for greater online privacy and protection laws for all users. And, it may amp the calls by many to break up the Google – Facebook advertising duopoly. Considering the power of these two companies, with a combined marketing capitalization of almost $1.5 trillion, taking them on may be a fool’s errand. But, it’s time to hold them accountable for their lax security procedures and willingness to sell your data with little regard for your privacy.

I’ve been in technology almost my entire adult life. In the early days we looked for ways to collect telephone numbers, mailing addresses (yes…snail mail street addresses), hobbies and other more mundane data to append to our databases for a variety of service needs. Sending out promotional snail mail to potentially more engaged and better targeted recipients to ensure efficiency of these high-cost printed collateral mailings was a fairly simple, non-invasive strategy.

Today, those methods are sometimes straight forward and harmless, but occasionally somewhat nefarious and potentially unlawful. The depth of knowledge companies have about each of us is alarming because we’ve seen that few companies can keep out hackers trying to steal that information. Do you trust the ethics and security of the FacebookGoogleTwitterInstragram combine?

I, for one, do not.