What could happen to the information you share online?

Sean talks about how large companies are collecting personal information and why this important

Written by Sean Cuttle


When Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, pioneers of the internet, brought their creation to life, they started the largest information revolution since the invention of the written word. The possibilities of the internet were endless. It offered people a platform to enter into open debate on important issues as equals. It connected both curious teenagers and esteemed academics like never before and made the world a much smaller place.

Has the early dream of the internet been realised or, has it been twisted and corrupted? Mark Zuckerberg once said that by “giving people the power to share, we’re making the world a more transparent place”. However, with the rise of large technology companies at the turn of the century, and their growing power in recent years, has the internet been transformed into a tool to taint the democratic process and promote the agenda of a small number of the world’s most influential companies?

Facebook’s involvement in the 2016 American presidential election is a perfect example of how the power wielded by tech giants can be used to influence the general public. In 2014, Cambridge Analytica, a British based research company focused on analysing the trends and patterns of voters by taking data from Facebook users. The company offered money to people who downloaded their personality quiz on Facebook and completed the advertised surveys. Users received a small payment per completed survey. Roughly 270,000 people installed the app before it was flagged and removed by Facebook.

The damage wasn’t isolated to just 270,000 users however. The app took data from friends of users that used it and, due to the highly interconnected nature of Facebook, as many as 50 million people had their data recorded and tracked.

For most people it’s hard to understand the important of  both the volume and value of the data taken from their day-to-day internet usage. Researchers have discovered that, by using people public Facebook profiles, organisations can accurately predict a number of personal attributes including: “sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances and parental separation”

Many people are surprisingly blasé when it comes to internet privacy. So, what if someone knows my political views, or my sexual preference? It actually means a lot. Take political campaigns for instance. By using data in this fashion, a political candidate could discover information about the voting population such as their ambitions, what drives them, what keeps them awake late at night. If a candidate can discover that much, they then know what to say in their speeches. They can tailor their rallies, their political ideology to convince the public to give them their vote. It doesn’t matter what the candidate actually believes, they can bend their morals and their beliefs to suit the majority of the voting population. That could be  dangerous.

Facebook’s collection of people’s personal data is much more extensive and, more importantly, much more deliberate than they let on.According to an article in the New York Times, “Facebook doesn’t just record every click and “like” on the site. It also collects browsing histories. It also purchases “external” data like financial information about users”.

More worryingly, Facebook’s collection of personal data isn’t limited to its user base. Facebook has created databases on people who don’t currently or never have had Facebook profiles. For example, you might not have signed up to Facebook yourself, but chances are you have been in the contacts list of someone who has. When they choose to import their contacts onto their profile, Facebook is given access to your name, your telephone number, and depending on the user, even your email address. All this information is then stored away in so-called ‘shadow profiles’ without your prior consent.

In the past number of years, social media giants have become informal news organisations. Due to their sizable user base and the potential exposure they offer journalists, many have begun publishing their content through these sites. This poses a unique issue.

Facebook maintains that they are not a news organisation. Because of that, they seem to make no attempt to provide users with unbiased and fair news coverage. Facebook uses algorithms to tailor what appears in each individual user’s news feed depending on their likes and preferences. And, because their aim is to engage users for the longest time possible, social media companies are “serving up content that previous behaviour suggests we would like rather than offering alternative voices”. Their aim is to entertain us, not inform us. That is a very important distinction yet.

This walled garden approach by social media platforms to personalise their content is creating an environment where it has become acceptable to listen to opinions and views that are aligned with your own, while ignoring differing opinions altogether. According to research, “When it comes to explicitly political issues, individuals are clearly more likely to pass on information that they have received from ideologically similar sources than to pass on information that they have received from dissimilar sources”. In summary, people subconsciously take notice of opinions that they agree with and keep on scrolling past different ones.

The dream held by the early pioneers of the internet of a platform for equal, calm and academic debate on prevalent societal issues around the world is in danger. As the market shifts towards a small number of multinational companies, so does the power. Whilst Mark Zuckerberg and the CEOs of the other technology companies like Google, Apple and Amazon, might not be using this data to take over the world, just having the capability to do so at all completely undermines democracy and the ideological principles that the internet was born from.

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