Facebook continues to come under fire for the way it has handled user data, and rightly so. The New York Times this week reported that Facebook established business partnerships with leading device makers like Apple, Samsung, BlackBerry, and Amazon to collect data. But it doesn’t stop there. The Times and other news organizations now report that Facebook “also has data-sharing partnerships with at least four Chinese electronics companies, including Huawei, which has close ties to the Chinese government and has been flagged by intelligence officials as a national security risk.”
These partnerships were formed unbeknownst to consumers and even before Facebook apps were commonplace on mobile devices. Users never even had a chance to protect their private data.
Mark Zuckerberg has been on an apology tour for the better part of 2018. But the fact that he didn’t mention these longstanding partnerships at F8, in his congressional testimony, or in any of his many other recent media appearances is disturbing.
What’s even more disturbing is that Facebook is surely not the only actor in this drama. Facebook is at the center of the most troubling reports (for now), but tech giants like Google, Twitter, Apple, Amazon, and others all have access to enormous quantities of user data. This is data that should be kept private and secure unless the user gives permission to share it.
Facebook’s gathering and possible mishandling of user data combined with the implication that other major companies may be doing the same raises the question: Is it even possible for smartphone users to keep their information secure?
Truth in Advertising?
Our smartphones are with us 24/7. They know where we go, our contacts, what we do online, and much more. And we know that our data is being sold, although perhaps we’re only beginning to realize the full extent of what that means for our privacy and online security.
The revelations about Facebook make us wonder who has sold what to whom and who knows what about each of us. Oftentimes that information is used to market to us, and usually that is to our benefit. Many marketing channels, from social media to remarketing ads, would not be the same without marketers and advertisers being able to target ads based on demographic and user behavior criteria. Likewise, consumers would not have the same ability to build rapport and stay connected with their favorite brands without the intervention of timely, high-quality targeted advertising.
But, the question is whether that data is also being used in malicious ways. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is only the most high-profile example of what happens when data winds up in the wrong hands and is used against us.
There is an enormous difference between attempting to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions and attempting to manipulate their opinions. Unfortunately, when the creators of software and hardware make sub-rosa deals to get hold of data, there is no way for consumers to control who ultimately receives their user information.
Governing for Good?
There is no easy answer for consumers who want to guard their privacy. In today’s world, we all rely on our smartphones. We use our web browsers and social media platforms for a variety of everyday activities.
Some government intervention may help. The European Union launched the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) last month, and it seems poised to crack down on untoward data collection without the user’s consent. In fact, both Facebook and Google were slapped with multiple multi-billion-euro lawsuits on the first day that the GDPR went into effect.
However, the wording of the GDPR is so broad that even small businesses with no conceivable interaction with users in the European Union feel forced to comply with its severe rules concerning data privacy and security. Regulation that is too aggressive or oppressive might stomp out innovation within the mobile space, which would be disastrous for all parties: consumers, developers, device makers, and advertisers.
How Can Consumers Push for Privacy?
The cat’s out of the bag, and now consumers are not only questioning their use of Facebook, but smartphones in general. Online activities don’t occur in a vacuum, of course, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the people who manufactured your device and the people who developed the apps you use are both part of a shadowy cabal acting against your interests.
The vast majority of advertisers do not have malicious intentions. But when consumer data is up for sale to the highest bidder, the “good guys” don’t always have the biggest budget.
Does this mean the only way users can protect their privacy going forward is to delete their Facebook account and deactivate their smartphone? Of course not. You can strengthen your privacy settings on Facebook and other platforms.
While updating your privacy settings does not fully solve the problem, a mass return to “dumb phones” does not seem imminent either. Still, consumer concerns about privacy and security will create new opportunities for app developers, device makers, and advertisers to drive revenue and earn consumer trust by securing user privacy and allowing for ethical usage of data.
Dan Goldstein is the president and owner of Page 1 Solutions, LLC. Page 1 Solutions is a full-service digital marketing agency in Lakewood, Colorado