Article by Paul Anderson-Riley - 17th April 2018

Personal Data In The Wake Of Facebook/Cambridge Analytica

Strange as it might sound to some, huge numbers of people routinely complete online surveys through Facebook to find out which football player they are most like, which Hogwarts house they should be in or how much money they will be earning in 2050. The truth is, every time you volunteer seemingly innocuous information or consent to share profile information with an app, your data is probably going somewhere to be used for another purpose.

Even logging into a site using your social media profile contributes to wider advertising capabilities, giving many sites the ability to access all the data shared on your profile, along with select data from your friends’ profiles. In Australia only 53 people used Cambridge Analytica’s information-gathering app, which was enough to give them data from as many as 311,127 users.

checkmyfile has always been an advocate of online privacy and the importance of responsible personal information usage, warning in the past about the dangers of information-gathering platforms, including Facebook’s privacy settings. This is why we felt it necessary to weigh in our thoughts about what the recent findings surrounding Facebook & Cambridge Analytica mean for your personal privacy online.

How is your information gathered?

The recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal highlights how little we know about where our information is going and how it can be used to influence us. Or, it could also show that we give up our personal information too easily.

While data breaches have almost become a regular fixture of modern news, it’s important to remember that what’s happened with Facebook and CA isn’t like a typical data breach: nobody ‘hacked’ the information used, it was information that, for the most part, we agreed could be used – even if the ‘what for’ part left a lot to be desired. The real rub comes from the fact that the thing users signed up for and the way their information was used were deceptively different.

If anything, the moral of this story is: think twice before agreeing to give out personal information online. Is it worth giving up all that personal information, in order to be told that you’re most like James Milner, you’d be in Slytherin, and you’re likely to earn a disappointingly small amount in 2050.

There are a number of methods used by companies with a view to accessing your data, usually for their own marketing purposes. These are just a few:

  • Competitions– these usually require a fair amount of your information to be covered off. Companies usually like this method as a way of building up a good user database that they can later mail with offers and promotions at a low cost.
  • Social media signup– using your Facebook, Twitter or Google+ account to sign into a website has admittedly taken a lot of the effort out of signing up, but it can give away more information than you anticipated
  • Data brokers– this is where information is ‘bought’ and ‘sold’. Websites have to disclose in their terms and conditions whether your information may be passed on or sold to third parties.

Data breaches are a seemingly regular fixture in modern news, fuelled in part by our unending quest for convenience, often at the cost of privacy. What many don’t realise though is that this readiness to volunteer information on ourselves and making it publicly-available is also putting us at a heightened risk of influence or identity fraud.

What is all this personal data used for?

Currently, allegations from a former Cambridge Analytica contractor suggest that Cambridge Analytica used information from Facebook profiles to target individuals to influence the outcome of the US Presidential Election with carefully-placed political marketing. Recently the CEO of CA was filmed boasting about the capabilities of their system in influencing elections around the world through Facebook, which has led to the question why Facebook has allowed it.

This is similar to the reasons used by most websites for gathering user data, albeit with a much more ambitious outcome and with arguably more deceptive methods. Companies collect data about their users because it allows them to build profiles about products or services that they might be interested in, and advertise accordingly. Where information is sold to advertisers by third parties, the more specific they can be in terms of targeting certain groups of people, the more they can charge.

The real elephant in the room is that it’s unlikely that just CA that have gathered and used information in this way: a former Facebook manager estimates that hundreds of millions of us will have had our information gathered using this method by different private companies. Facebook has now publicly apologised in the UK and US, detailing that investigations will be made into companies that have access to large amounts of personal data through Facebook. A #deletefacebook movement has started which will in the short term impact the value of Facebook share prices.

With technology simplifying how easy it is to sign up and provide details online we can only remind ourselves to remain vigilant not only to where we supply data but also how we are influenced by the things we see online. The recent revelations have only served to reinforce the fact that even the most basic of information we provide online can be used to great effect. Privacy settings and privacy policies are included on all reputable websites, if a site doesn’t have one be extremely careful before volunteering any information. If you are ever concerned about the way your information is being used simply contact the company or check their privacy policy.

If you apply the concepts of the internet to everyday life you are less likely to provide details online. As a rule of thumb, never give information out online that you wouldn’t give in person. If someone turned up at your house knocked on your door and asked you to complete a quick ten question survey to see which footballer you are most like, you’d probably suspect that something was awry there too.

You can find out if you are at heightened risk of identity fraud with our free-to-use risk estimator

The problems with private data being made public

In the case of Facebook and CA, much of the information used was publicly accessible online, however in using the information in a way other than initially intended, there has still been a clear breach of trust.

On this occasion, happily, the information used hasn’t been purchased or used for fraudulent purposes, although the legality of it all is still very much in question. Harvesting information from social media is just one of the techniques utilised by fraudsters, and what might seem like inconsequential disclosure – as per the techniques used in the Facebook scandal – is often anything but that and can come back to hurt you.

Checking your credit file is one of the single most effective ways to monitor for fraudulent attempts on your finances, allowing you to take action as soon as possible. Only checkmyfile includes data from 4 credit reference agencies together, in the UK’s most detailed online credit report.

You can try checkmyfile free for 30 days, then for just £14.99 a month, which you can cancel at any time online, or via freephone or email.

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