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Examining data privacy issues in wake of social media, technological developments

(Nghi Nguyen/Daily Bruin)

By Alicia Park

Oct. 12, 2023 7:36 p.m.

This post was updated Oct 12 at 10:58 p.m.

As increasingly advanced technological developments manifest in Bruins’ daily lives through social media and other internet applications, questions arise regarding their implications on data privacy issues.

Ramesh Srinivasan, an information studies professor, said technology and media consumers should critically engage in the issue of data privacy.


“Are we Googling or being Googled? Are we socializing or being socialized?” Srinivasan said.

In 2018, the topic of data privacy surfaced in the public consciousness as Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his intent to sell Facebook users’ data, according to Forbes. The trial illuminated how the company exploits the public’s privacy for monetary gain and should work to regain the public’s trust, according to the same source.

In response to these events, California signed into effect legal enforcement such as the California Consumer Privacy Act in 2019, which allows customers to have more control on the personal information they give to businesses, according to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

On Jan. 12, Reuters reported the beginning of a new era of data privacy – states California, Colorado, Connecticut, Utah and Virginia will follow the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation policies, which consider data a human right and changes the types of access and usage companies will have to consumers’ data. In law, this denotes a mark of progress, but the new era may complicate functions and operations for businesses, according to business research and advisory company Gartner.

In March, Gartner reported that 60% of marketing leaders believed that navigating the data privacy regulations while performing their corporate responsibilities will become increasingly challenging because their roles center around data analysis to better understand users and strategize their business accordingly.

Users’ data is a valuable asset to a business, according to Forbes. With tension on the rights of access to this data between companies and their consumers, Srinivasan said it is imperative for both parties to analyze how they are contributing to the system.

“(It’s) important people recognize that, if I have a large set of data, such expansive, intimate data, about where people move, when they move, where they go from and where they go to, that itself is worth a lot to investors and that is part of how this business model works,” Srinivasan said.

With the rise of artificial intelligence and more sophisticated technology, as well as consumers’ increasing willingness to share personal information online, it has become easier for companies to extract private information and financially benefit from it, according to Forbes.

According to the same source, people in the United States have approximately seven different social media accounts on average. The diversity of apps coupled with the 4.9 billion users currently using these platforms allow for a significant pool for technology companies to draw data from.

Adeline Ra, a third-year biology student at UC Berkeley, said she noticed the smart nature of social media algorithms through her personal use.

“I can definitely tell that the algorithm has chosen these specific brands based on what I decide to click on because I will interact with the ads a lot,” Ra said. “Whenever a new ad for a brand comes out, it’s pretty accurate to what are the kinds of styles that I would enjoy.”

Ra said she has seen her friends benefit from social media in other ways outside of shopping, such as with their careers.

“I know a lot of my friends that are in other fields are very active on LinkedIn and find it really helpful to find jobs and different opportunities,” Ra said.

In addition to Ra, Tracy Le, a fourth-year communication and media studies student, said she has experienced the benefits of staying active on social media and sharing her personal information with businesses.

Le has garnered over 18.4k followers and 1.6 million likes on TikTok by sharing content about life as a UCLA student. Le said posting daily content about her experiences allows her to feel like she is making an impact.

She said a student’s mother came up to her during move-in day to thank her for sharing personal and candid day-to-days at UCLA, which helped her children have a smoother move-in process and make informed preparations for the school year.

“To see that I helped a stranger who I had not known before – it was just so insane to think about the power of social media,” Le added.

Le said she profits off of her account financially and through career experience, making her grateful for the opportunities she has earned by putting herself more publicly online.

“This is a great way for me to understand the dialogue between a creator and a business and just to have more insight on the interpersonal relationships that goes on in the industry – and obviously, the free PR is amazing,” Le said.

While social media apps allow for a myriad of benefits for users and businesses, these decisions and interactions sit within a larger economic landscape.

Srinivasan said companies that maximize the value of data through not only organic revenue but also selling users’ data are able to undermine the fair market, preventing competitive platforms from being a threat and ultimately taking advantage of their users.

According to T4 Strategy & Advisory, Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, dominated 70% of the social media market as of 2021. Meta’s Quarter 2 2023 Form 10-Q “Competition” section lists the various antitrust investigations against the company which are still being defended, revealing the extent to which Facebook’s dominance infringes upon federal law.

“All of this is a far cry from any traditional capitalism. … (It) is much more akin to something that some economists call a ‘zombification of capitalism,’” Srinivasan said.

While the federal government works to restrain the dominance of companies such as Meta, the power and money that comes with possession of data creates difficulties in achieving that goal.

Srinivasan said he is impressed by these companies’ accomplishments but disagrees with their methods on using their advantageous position to violate data privacy and capitalism at large.

“I give them a lot of credit,” Srinivasan said. “They did some very interesting and intelligent things. … They were able to harness data. And the Internet has an infrastructure to create all sorts of interesting services and platforms (with it). But they didn’t have to do it in this way.”

While Srinivasan said he does not have an explicit solution to such problems, he added that Bruins should educate themselves about these debates. While Bruins may reap the short-term benefits of social media, participating either directly or indirectly in the current system creates questions about consumers’ impact on the economic and political landscape, he said.

“It’s our role, being a top university and being a public university to really engage with these big public questions. And those are increasingly mediated by technology,” Srinivasan said.

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Alicia Park
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