Your personal data is your currency, whether you ‘Like’ it or not

We’re leaving a digital trace in almost everything we do; from the purchases we make using our cards, to the places we go when carrying our phones and even what we ‘Like’ and search for online.

Alarmingly, most of us are aware that this is happening to some degree - but we’re great at ignoring this fact in order to ‘be connected’ and to take advantage of the plethora of free products on offer. I doubt, however, that many are aware of the ramifications giving up your privacy on social media may have. I will explain in a shocking example what your data can be used for later in this article, so stay with me. 

If you're a regular Facebook user then you have to be aware that Facebook can now, with staggering accuracy, predict things about you which you have never told anyone or posted online.

It is now possible to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook ‘Likes’. Seventy ‘Likes’ are enough to outdo what a person's friend knows about them (political preference, religion, etc), and it only takes 150 ‘Likes’ to know as much as their parents, 300 ’Likes’ to know more than their partner and more than 300 ‘Likes’ can mean they know more about you than yourself.

The amount of information Facebook and associated companies hold about us simply by tracking our everyday conversations on this social media tool is staggering. 

So, how did online tracking become so sophisticated and what is the data used for?

To answer that question, I would like to share with you an example which in my opinion sums up the danger that comes with the loss of control over our own data. Between 2009 and 2013 Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell, students at Cambridge University, developed a Facebook application called ‘My Personality App’. The app was designed to determine your OCEAN profile by asking you a set of predefined questions. The psychometric profile focussed on measuring your psychological traits of ‘Openness’, ‘Conscientiousness’, ‘Extroversion’, ‘Agreeableness’, and ‘Neuroticism’. Once completed you received a report (your profile).

Facebook users loved this app and it went viral to the point where millions of users had completed the questionnaire. This meant that all of a sudden Kosinski and Stillwell owned the biggest dataset when combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles. They started to look for correlations between the personality profiles of their subjects and other data from their profiles such as what they ‘Liked’, shared, their gender, location, etc.

Kosinski and Stillwell could all of a sudden make predictions with a high level of accuracy on whether people were gay, extroverts or introverts, what the colour of their skin was, their political preferences, their intelligence, alcohol, cigarette or drug use, whether their parents were divorced, etc. all by simply observing some of their actions on Facebook.

As the power of this incredible dataset became more apparent a company called Cambridge Analytica was formed, with the commercial intent of combining data mining and data analysis along with strategic communication, for use within the electoral process. It was at this time that Kosinski, who didn’t agree with the commercialisation of his research, left the University.

Cambridge Analytica set the target to profile every single adult in America on the OCEAN profile and numerous other preferences and criteria. In order to achieve this they purchased more data from external sources like shopping data, bonus cards, churches, club memberships, etc. Disturbingly, they now openly claim that they have achieved their goal.

The Brexit and Trump campaigns used Cambridge Analytica for targeted advertising and both had an outcome that stunned each nation and was in direct opposition to any prior predictions. Both times Cambridge Analytica executed a highly targeted marketing plan in which they ensured they delivered a marketing message, uniquely tailored to every adult individual, with the sole purpose to trigger an emotional response which was meant to either: 1) reinforce their support for the campaign, 2) sway them their way if they appeared on the fence; or 3) deter them from voting in case it was clear they could not be swayed.

It cannot be proven whether Cambridge Analytica is the sole reason for the surprising outcomes of both campaigns, however, it’s got to get you thinking: how sophisticated has targeted marketing become? Are we manipulated by marketing not just addressing some criteria, like gender and location, but by addressing our very personal and unique deeply rooted fears, desires, ambitions and anxieties to make emotional, subconscious decisions?

When I heard about the degree Facebook allows itself and other companies to trace our every steps to create a glance into our souls I stopped using Facebook apps. I haven’t clicked a ‘Like’ button in years, I refused to install the Messenger and I thought that way I could remain ‘under the radar’ and not be traced. But after further research it’s become apparent that that is not enough. Information is drawn from everything you do and do not do on Facebook, as well as your usage of any other loyalty card, online purchase, church visit etc. And even in the absence of action the tracking remains. For instance, how often you upload (or not) a new profile picture to Facebook and whether you do not click a ‘Like’ button is also telling about who you are. There seems to be no escape from being traced and categorised, whether you like it or not.

To top it all off, even if you only sporadically visit your Facebook page (once a month is enough) and visit any page online which shows a Facebook ‘Like’ button (if embedded via an iFrame, which most of them are), then information of you visiting that page is also sent back to Facebook’s warehouse. With many pages showing a ‘Like’ button this means Facebook knows and stores most of your internet history.

You pay with your data and therefor your privacy. None of us are immune from sophisticated manipulation, whether we want to admit it or not, we ARE being manipulated increasingly.

There are tools which help to prevent certain tracking, although that’s only really scratching the surface. If, like me, you value your digital privacy you could start by installing software packages, the likes of ‘Privacy Badger’, on your computer. It’s a browser extension that prevents hidden third-party trackers spying on your browsing habits.

I would like to think that in the future we will look back at this period of time as the time of ‘the privacy wild west’. My hope is that we will find better ways to protect our data and regulate its use. Until then, I advise you to be aware of the fact that your data is being bought, sold and used to manipulate you. Might be time to finally give Facebook the boot for good. 

Claudia Hill is the Managing Director and Owner of Room9, a Hamilton based Web Software Design and Development Company.

She is also a foundation board member of CultivateIT, a Waikato Cluster dedicated to furthering the region’s burgeoning tech industry.