Marius Royal

Market Analyst

September 18 2018

How should we view our public data going forward?

The internet has changed drastically since its inception to the public in the early 1980s and the world wide web of 1990. The internet in the 90’s started as a new frontier of text-based emails and simplistic chatrooms, has evolved into something that would be unrecognizable 20 years ago. We live in an era where we can broadcast, chat, read, research, play, watch, and do pretty much anything we please - on any device. While on the surface that seems utopian, and in many ways, it is, there is a growing concern among users that to have such universal access to a plethora of information, will come at the cost of our privacy. Juggernaut corporations, such as Facebook and Google, have accumulated a substantial amount of our information through our voluntary daily. Should we have reason to fear a breach of privacy?
Our search history is cataloged by Google to generate targeted adverts, and Facebook has been caught up in a recent scandal with Cambridge Analytica with regards to mining public data… But that’s just it, this data is public, and it is made public willingly by us.
As highlighted by Facebook earlier in March of 2018, a third-party political consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, was embroiled in a scandal when a former Canadian employee blew the whistle on some of the tactics the company had used to collect public data. The primary concern was how Cambridge Analytica bypassed digital consent, by collecting data from friends and affiliates of those who did accept Analytica’s terms and conditions, but not the friends and affiliates affected . Essentially, allowing them access to many more public profiles, requiring only one person to accept the terms and conditions on a Facebook affiliated third-party website. Dishonest? No question. A data breach? That seems like a stretch, and here’s why.
What Cambridge Analytica had access to was information on public profiles, data that in no way was private. While many users do put privacy barriers up, so that only friends can view what kind of content they post and interact with, this in and of itself does not change the nature of the data from public to private.
What was truly compromised in this fiasco was Cambridge Analytica’s integrity. A month ago, Cambridge Analytica stopped operations forcing them out of business. And for many, myself included, this seems entirely reasonable given their poor business ethic and underhanded mining of data. I, like many, joined the public anger and outrage upon finding out what had happened when the story broke, going so far as to personally invest in a VPN (virtual private network). Yet, looking back on this as some time has passed, I believe there is a lot that can be gained as to how we should view public data going forward.
In no way do I, or anyone at Sqirl, condone the actions of Cambridge Analytica, but importantly, what this situation has done is highlight the consumer’s relationship with Facebook. Public information - be it on a friend’s post to pages we like - is information we are voluntarily giving away to Facebook. That information in turn is utilized by Facebook to be monetized which is why the service is free to the consumer. The problem (which is being addressed more so now by Facebook) is that this interaction feels very underhanded. What I just stated has been hidden behind pages of corporate jargon, buried deep in the terms and conditions. Making the relationship to the consumer much more manipulative than reciprocal.
Going forward, it is critical that the relationship between consumer and corporation is reciprocal in nature, to avoid another Cambridge Analytica situation. Companies that do utilize public data need to be explicit to the consumer, stating what they intend to do with it and what data will be publicly utilized. For example, private messages on Facebook are private in nature and not utilized by Facebook, but public interactions are utilized. We, as consumers, need to understand what data is public versus data that is private, allowing us to make more informed decisions. Going forward with accountability, at Sqirl, the development of a reciprocal relationship is vital in building trust with your shared data – as seen with the FINPASS project.
It seems entirely reasonable that as consumers we should be able to monetize our data, as it clearly has market value. If we understand that companies such as Facebook require our participation to remain profitable, then we can direct the conversation to make them more accountable with our public data.
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