In 2018, the world was shaken when it was revealed that the data of up to 87 million Facebook users had been harvested by a political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica (CA) which had done work for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. CA had been co-founded by Steve Bannon, the Breitbart disinformation mogul and later senior advisor to Trump who also served as CA’s vice president. The scandal prompted a sharp drop in Facebook use, with the Guardian reporting that since the news broke, actions on Facebook such as likes, shares and posts have dropped by almost 20%.
One problem with data protection is that the average person doesn’t think about the nefarious ways in which their data can be used and thus does not view their data as sensitive. What could a criminal want with Facebook pictures of me cooking a meal in my kitchen or going on holiday? Well, the cooking picture lets the criminal know where you live, and the holiday picture lets them know that you’re not at home. For a thief, that is an information goldmine. In fact, when the internet was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, his first choice of name was ‘The Information Mine’. This, however, was largely so that the initials would spell his name; ‘TIM’.
It is easy to think that our personal data is useless, but there are people in this world who can think of very dangerous uses indeed. Whether it is used to influence an election, suppress the human rights of those living under oppressive regimes, steal an identity or blackmail someone, it is worth remembering that our data is valuable. Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are not free. You pay with your data. If they were truly free, Mark Zuckerberg would not be worth 74 billion dollars.
Adam Boland – Science Editor