Don't Blame Facebook
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has started his second day of testimony in Washington and critics are likely hoping that Zuckerberg will sweat a little more than he did yesterday. When he answered questions from the Senate it was clear that most Senators didn't have enough knowledge about Facebook to ask the tough questions. It was like trying to show your grandfather how to program his PVR.
Facebook will make some changes to the way it operates, but don't expect anything drastic to happen. I expect it to get over this speed bump and in a few months it will be business as usual.
The harsh reality is, Facebook users created a monster when they willingly turned over their personal information. Not many people understand how Facebook ads work and how powerful they are, so here's an explanation.
Facebook is an Advertising Beast
When the news first broke a few weeks ago about the Facebook data breach, I couldn’t help asking the question - What did people on social media expect?
To me, it’s been clear for years that Facebook is far more about the collection and use of personal data than it is about showing pictures of your family’s trip to Hawaii. Facebook certainly isn’t alone in gathering and using people’s personal information, but let's just say it's the reigning heavyweight champion of personal data collection.
Here’s how Facebook works. When you first sign up for Facebook (remember that?) Facebook tells you it wants to make your experience as good as possible and wants to make sure you’ll see content that interests you, so it asks for some basic personal information, a little about yourself and what you like. No big deal right?
As time goes along, you “like” and “share” different bits of information and Facebook records your moves. Sometimes it only takes a click or two, but, in some cases, it can turn into important personal info about your political beliefs. As an example, if you click on an Angry emoji or two below stories on something Prime Minister Trudeau has done, but then click on a couple of Smile emoji’s about an opposition leader, Facebook records that information and it goes into your profile. When a political advertiser comes along, you just might be a candidate to see some ads that attempt to alter your political beliefs.
Have you ever been online, perhaps on Amazon looking for a specific item, and then lo and behold that same item showed up on your Facebook feed the next time you checked it? It happened to me on Facebook a few days ago, right after I looked for golf shoes. Facebook knows what sites you're shopping on and what you're looking for.
People need to understand every time they click on anything on Facebook, it’s recorded and is added to their profile. People shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that Facebook had so much personal information on them, especially those who’ve been active on Facebook for years. People do things on social media for a reason. Actions form a pattern and each click, share, comment and other move go into your profile.
Why Facebook Likes Your Friends Too
The reason Facebook, and others, want personal information is because advertisers want it too. I did a blog on this awhile ago. Done properly, digital advertising can be far better than traditional advertising to reach specific audiences. If an advertiser wants to reach 34-45-year-old professional women who like to drink white wine while watching Netflix, they can do it. Nobody forced anyone to give that personal information because it as willingly shared on Facebook.
The other great way that Facebook and others can target potential buyers is by using “like” audiences. Let’s say you’re a 40-year-old woman and a women’s clothing store has your email address and phone number. Not only can that company place ads on your Facebook timeline, but it can also search through all your Facebook friends and find women who you’re connected to who have similar interests and characteristics and send them the same ad. The same technology also finds friends of those friends and friends of their friends and so on. Six degrees of separation is basically how personal information on more than 622,000 Canadians was misused by Cambridge Analytica and that's also led to suspicions the breach is connected to Russian hackers.
The technology is so good that if a person clicks on one of those clothing store ads on Facebook they may get another video, or perhaps a coupon for them to buy one of the items that was advertised in the first video. Call it scary, or creepy, but it’s been going on for a long time. Once again, nothing was done illegally by Facebook and all the necessary information was willingly shared. Many people didn’t realize it, but that’s the way the game works.
What was starting to become a problem for Facebook was third-party apps that were collecting personal information and weren’t always protecting it properly. These apps are so well integrated into Facebook that people don’t realize they’re separate. You likely seen them. They take all kinds of personal information and then tell you what celebrity you look like, or they build a personality profile for you to let you know what kind of a person you are and what motivates you. Once again, you’re giving personal information in exchange for these funny profiles to be built. Is it really worth it?
There is some good news in all of this and that already become clear before Zuckerberg started his testimony.
The first thing is, Canada has stronger privacy rules than the US and several other countries, so that provides a certain amount of protection. For the last few years, digital advertisers haven’t been able to get as much personal information and use it to push their products or services in Canada, as they have in the States. Still there’s more than enough personal information for them to go around.
The second piece of good news is Facebook has already taken several steps to try to ensure more privacy, including changing relationships with many of the third-party apps. A few days ago, Facebook showed its users how to delete the apps. Much of the third-party stuff will be brought in-house or eliminated.
The biggest question that remains, is whether having a giant like Facebook on a leash will provide better privacy than having smaller monsters running loose. Nobody knows.
Regardless of what happens, social media sites like Facebook will continue to record the information you give it. There’s no way around it. They also will continue to own the information. I’m sorry to say, but if you want to be on Facebook you’re agreeing to that. It’s fundamental.
If you’re really concerned about your personal privacy, don’t go on social media. There are moves you can make to protect yourself to a certain degree, but when it comes to social media and privacy, you can’t be a little pregnant.