FAUST WAS a scholar and a charlatan, a well-to-do man who was not satisfied with what he had, so to access unlimited knowledge and the pleasures of the world, he made a deal with the Devil. From that literature comes the term “a Faustian bargain.”
By the end of last year, Facebook boasted more than 2.2 billion users, men, women and children who traded access to their lives – as shared on the social network – for access to a communications service that’s evolved from being user-friendly to downright addictive.
Now the scope of the platform’s privacy issues, long a source of worry for cybersecurity and information security professionals, is becoming clearer to the general public.
Beyond the personal information that’s collected on sign-up, data analysis of how these platforms are used is the next generation of business intelligence.
The field of psychometrics has blossomed with the surfeit of information offered by social-media data-gathering. Psychometry was once done using data from questionnaires and observed information, but the data trails of connected digital users are much richer sources of correlatable information. If you aren’t paying for the service, then you are the product.
Nowhere has that been truer than on Facebook, a service that depends on both the content generated by its users and on their digital footprints for its profitable advertising business.
We’ve also always known that we are being tracked on social media as well as on the wider internet. Browse a product on Amazon, and in a matter of minutes advertising promoting similar products will appear in Facebook sidebar ads and in Google advertisement placings on websites.
Now we know that Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica and its partner companies to access more than 50 million user profiles and their related interactions on its service.
CA then used this information and access to do what advertisers do all the time on social media, identifying and targeting users with messages on behalf of its business clients, who turned out to be the Trump presidential campaign and the Brexit vote.
Facebook may be a social media platform to its users, but it is a data mine for its owners and its profitability is dependent on knowing what the people who log into it do with their time. So what should a Facebook user do?
If you work in a security-sensitive business, you may want to consider quitting Facebook altogether.
If you are happy using social media services, your first step should be to understand the privacy controls available to you and to activate those which will limit access to material you do not want widely circulated.
In the wake of this issue, expect digital tools to come to market which will help you to control access to your information and feeds on social media. Mozilla has already adapted a data sandboxing extension specifically to enhance the privacy of Facebook users (http://ow.ly/mngh30jblGM).
Don’t sign up for apps or games that are linked to the Facebook platform. Many games ask for more information than is necessary, and gaming can be used to gather psychometric data.
Consider limiting what you share and say on social media services to statements, links and media you would be comfortable with sharing in person. This makes social media less fun, but reduces your exposure on the platform.
Facebook may be free and convenient, but the company has demonstrated repeatedly that it will always do what’s good for its fortunes.
For some, the Facebook compact has been broken, probably irretrievably.
For most of us, myself included, its utility remains persuasive, but not at the cost of caution and due diligence.
Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there