Now that Facebook, Google and Amazon know pretty much everything about us, how they’re using that information is drawing the focus of politicians throughout the Western world, asking in effect: “Shouldn’t something be done about this?”
Revelations that U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica apparently used data from more than 50 million Facebook accounts to try to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favour of Donald Trump have sparked criticism over how the giant social networking company protects its users’ data.
Some people say we should also worry about that amount of information being collected by a few giant tech companies and dispersed to third parties for their own uses.
“I think the bigger question that we should be asking is actually what does it mean that those companies have that data?” said computational social scientist Sandra Matz, who is an assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.
“And is the data that those companies hold sufficiently protected? My response is basically that it isn’t.”
‘The new gold’
Personal data about the likes, dislikes and interests of web users is a treasure trove of riches for business and political marketers trying to sell their message or product.
Or as Matz co-wrote in her article There’s Still Time to Stop the Tech Monopoly Takeover published in Fortune magazine: “Their data has become the new gold, and their attention the main commodity traded in the digital economy.”
“A much much bigger problem that we’re not even talking about is what does it mean that companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon really have that much power to control, not only the marketing sphere, but pretty much everything we know about individuals these days?” Matz told CBC.
Jonathan Taplin, author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, said Facebook, Google and Amazon have a complete monopoly on consumer preference data.
“Their whole business is built on accumulating extraordinary amounts of data, and yet they don’t really care that much about how that data gets used, especially by third parties,” said Taplin.
“These companies have all this data, but you don’t know how that data is being used.”
The current controversy involves a psychological-profiling quiz app for use within Facebook that researcher Aleksandr Kogan created and paid about 270,000 people to take part in.
The Trump-connected data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica is being accused of having obtained information from the app on about 50 million Facebook users. The app also vacuumed up data on people’s friends — including those who never downloaded the app or gave explicit consent.
The incident has prompted some regulators and politicians to consider whether tougher regulations need to be put into place to protect users.
“I think the allegations here absolutely highlight the limited rights Americans have to their data, and [they] should tee up a conversation about the kind of protections we need for the digital age,” U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner Terrell McSweeny told the Washington Post in an interview.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted the internet giants wield enormous power. “What we need is for those companies to assume the responsibilities that come with that power,” he said in Sussex, N.B.
In the U.K., Prime Minister Theresa May said she expects Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to “comply fully” with a British investigation and that “people need to have confidence in how their personal data is used.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company has taken steps to prevent this sort of situation from happening again.
But Matz says an actual security breach by hackers would be much more devastating.
“If Facebook was much smaller … it wouldn’t have made such a big difference,” said Matz.
“Facebook is one thing. But if you think about Gmail for example: say all the email data got hacked and kind of leaked. That would have massive implications,” she said.
Still, more regulations are needed for the everyday use of personal data that is legally obtained from users and sold to third parties, she said.
What data is used for
While companies like Facebook have taken steps to allow users to adjust their privacy settings, Matz said the onus shouldn’t be on the account holders to protect their own information.
“I think it’s great if they have more control,” she said. “But I think people simply don’t care enough. They probably don’t really know how much is possible and what their data is being used for.”
That’s why there’s support for the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which, according to its website, will apply “to all companies processing the personal data of data subjects residing in the Union, regardless of the company’s location.”
These regulations force organizations that want to use the data of EU members to be much more transparent in the data they collect and how that data would be used.
“Consent must be clear and distinguishable from other matters and provided in an intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language,” according to the GDPR website. “It must be as easy to withdraw consent as it is to give it.”
Some, like Matt Stoller, a senior fellow at the Open Markets Institute, praised the GDPR initiatives and said they should be implemented in North America.
But he said it’s also time that Facebook was restructured to “neutralize” its market power and be forced to divest some of its holdings like Instagram and WhatsApp.
“You’ve got to split up the company,” he said.
Matz, however, said the whole purpose of Facebook is connecting the world, which means by definition it’s valuable because everybody is on it.
“So in that sense, I think breaking up Facebook is much harder,” she said.
Anti-trust rules could be used to break down a company like Google into smaller corporations that aren’t allowed to share data, she said.
Size brings advantages
She also proposed a third-party auditing system to improve the security of all the digital monopolies. As well, she suggested quarterly disclosure reports of data usage requiring companies to inform the amount the user is worth to the company would create higher data transparency.
Joe Kennedy, who heads up the science and technology think-tank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the size of these tech giants do bring benefits.
“Large amounts of data, including personal information, are increasingly a vital input for some of the economy’s most important innovations, including online platforms, medical diagnoses, digital assistants, language translation, urban planning, and public safety,” he wrote recently.
Positive uses of data
“They’ve spent a lot of money advancing great technology,” he also said in an interview with CBC.
Kennedy said the EU’s GDPR goes too far and will end up restricting the positive uses of data.
The real issue, he said, isn’t how much information companies like have Facebook has, but how they can use it.
“Any information they have can be used in a good way or a bad way. If you’re doing artificial intelligence on medical diagnostic software, you want as much medical information as you can to do it,” he said.
“So I think we have to talk about uses rather than how much they have.”