Wednesday, April 1

Aaron Julian: Social media users must exert more responsibility over data

Facebook has been in hot water for Cambridge Analytica’s breach of users’ privacy. But it’s expected that the information we post on social media will be misused. (Creative Commons by Maurizio Pesce via Flickr)

Last week, all of Washington, D.C. and countless others honed in on a hearing in Congress to watch Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, get grilled for the company’s breaches of user data.

Congress launched volley after volley of questions, regarding topics ranging from the Cambridge Analytica breach, which involved a third-party web application scraping millions of users’ Facebook profiles for political analysis, to issues of possible censorship of opinions. At the end of it all, politicians and the media lambasted the company for the widespread use of user and nonuser data.

The hearing showed us the truth about social media: it’s a business, not a public service.

But what did we expect?

Consumers – especially students, who are mostly part of the age demographic most active on social media according to a Pew Research Center study – need to be smarter about how they interact with Silicon Valley. There is a clear lack of regulation of new technologies and the flow of information on the internet. Social media has its rewards, but we pay with our information to use it.

Information is now more valuable and useful than ever before. In 2007, for example, then-Sen. Barack Obama put together a groundbreaking team of data experts who revolutionized campaign politics. With its wide use of surveys, the Obama team developed a way to microtarget individual voters. This resulted in specific ground strategies for each house visited and each voter called. Political campaign strategy has made a permanent shift toward this data-driven approach.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. A study by Microsoft researchers Sharad Goel and Daniel Goldstein in the journal Marketing Science indicates that the information found on social media can be used to significantly improve prediction of behaviors and personalities. In other words, your data is used to determine how you think, how you act and how you feel. This information acts a gateway to optimize businesses and campaigns by allowing organizations to target their audiences. And the El Dorado of this data is most likely found on your Facebook account, in your Amazon purchase history, in your Google search history and on your iCloud account.

It is time we start treating that information with the power and authority it deserves.

This immense data collection by companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon happens without significant government regulation. Without rules, these companies have all faced the cycle of data breaches and damage control after Federal Trade Commission complaints. The Cambridge Analytica breach is most likely only a prelude to more privacy breaches in the future.

It’s hopeful to think these breaches of privacy can be minimized with a thorough set of rules, fines and guidelines put together and enforced by federal and state governments. But even then, major firms will make this type of regulation difficult to write or lukewarm in their effectiveness, at best.

Silicon Valley spends millions of dollars annually lobbying both federal and state politicians to act against digital regulations. Although these companies purposefully exert themselves as “cities on a hill” whose mission is to bring people together, they operate like prominent Wall Street banks.

We should not expect significant or powerful change when it comes to protecting our personal data via regulation. Instead, we the users must exert more responsibility over our own data.

Instead of viewing Facebook as the place to put everything you do in life for the world to see, we need to start viewing this company more like a gluten-free Goldman Sachs. We can do business with them as we please, but we must know we are working with a business that is trying to make money off of our inputs.

Instead of financial investment, like on Wall Street, we invest our personal information with hope of some social gain. Sure, you may connect more with old friends or project an image of a better you, but this return on investment comes with the risk of your information being misused. It’s easy to forget this transactional relationship when social media is so ingrained in campus life – everyone from students to UCLA Housing are present on social media, after all.

Of course, social media has done miraculous things around the world. It has provided back-channels to rally support against tyrannical governments, exposed shocking issues in law enforcement , elevated the average person’s voice and opinions to unprecedented heights and, most recently, given me a large discount on a backpack I bought on Amazon.

The findings from Facebook’s media blitz do not mean we should delete our Snapchat and Instagram accounts, but that we must we must exert caution with what we see or do online – or demand our political candidates update consumer privacy laws to win the 2018 midterm elections.

Facebook and other technology companies are not villains or run by crooked individuals. They operate within the framework our government provides, and we invest our time and information with them as we please. But as with all things new, caution is crucial. Our information is worth the time and care.


Julian was an Opinion columnist.

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