Think of your Facebook account as a city. Each comment, 'like', and share you make can be compared to the bricks and mortar that construct the buildings. And by the sheer volume of users like you, there are thousands of invisible companies monitoring every move you make.
Such companies take note of demographic information, engagement, and interests to build a comprehensive consumer profile. They are interested in things like where you shop, eat, and travel as well as your political leanings, hobbies, and preferences. This information is then sold to advertisers to better target their messaging and products.
Contrary to popular belief, not every company can access all of your information, only pieces of it. It’s a layered approach to data collection. These companies known as 'data brokers' or 'third-party trackers,' gather indirect snippets of information about you and then use intelligent algorithms to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The resulting product? A virtual mirror image of your online persona.
The extent of this surveillance isn't generally known by the public. Its implications for privacy and democracy have rung alarm bells among privacy advocates. Many questions revolve around how this data is used and how consumers can safeguard their information.
Facebook's business model depends on targeted advertising. The more detailed the accused-company profiles, the more valuable they are to advertisers. However, this has led to privacy concerns as Facebook’s primary focus is revenue, not user privacy.
This kind of data harvesting is invasive and morally conflicting. Facebook users typically have no idea that their data is being monitored and sold without their knowledge. There are questions over whether this is legally compliant and whether users do have the right to know who is watching them.
The controversy surrounding Facebook's data sharing policies resurfaced following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This saw tens of millions of Facebook users having their data harvested without consent, leading to calls for legislation to regulate data brokers.
Despite this, Facebook continues to profit from targeted advertisements. Their response to criticism has been to make changes to their privacy settings, but these invariably fall short of the transparency needed.
Third-party companies scoop up information from social media platforms like Facebook, then sell this to advertisers who use it to target their ads more efficiently. Such tracking is known as 'cross-site' tracking. Companies usually rely on 'cookies', pieces of data that track your browsing history.
How they gain access to user data, however, is a sophisticated process. Once a third-party company places their cookie on a website, they can track the user's activity. They can see which websites the user visits, the time spent on each site, and the actions taken.
By repeating this process across several sites, these data collectors build a detailed image of a user's online activities. Combining this with the information that users voluntarily post on their Facebook profiles makes it easy for these companies to create exhaustive profiles. It’s a perfectly legal, albeit controversial, way of gathering and using data.
Facebook facilitates third-party tracking via its business tools. Companies can put Facebook code ('Facebook Pixel') on their websites to track user activities, even after they have left Facebook.
Regulating Data Brokers
Data brokers operate in a largely unregulated market. While some regulations like the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) exist, they have limited scope. They primarily target how individuals and companies process and share personal data, and largely ignore data brokers.
In the U.S., privacy laws concerning data brokers are virtually non-existent. Despite calls for regulation following scandals like Cambridge Analytica, these organizations continue to operate unchecked, gathering and selling data without user knowledge or consent.
In the wake of privacy concerns, a few states like Vermont and California have taken matters into their own hands, instituting laws to monitor data brokers. They require companies to explain who they are, who they sell to, and to provide means for consumers to opt-out. While a start, these laws are only a small step toward better regulation of these clandestine operations.
The rest of the U.S. needs to follow their lead in protecting consumer data. Currently, consumers are left vulnerable to potential data misuse without their knowledge or consent. Greater regulation will help reduce the likelihood of misuse, giving users more comfort and control over their personal information.
Understanding how Facebook, a platform most of us use almost without a second thought, can be a vital tool in understanding privacy rights in the digital age. Facebook is not a safe place for those fearful of data sharing, but informed consumers can take steps to manage their online persona. The key lies with the consumer to guard themselves in the digital world.
This sheds light on the rise of data brokers as the modern 'Big Brother'. Companies using cross-site tracking to build detailed user profiles are prevalent, and we, as consumers, must be educated about how our data is collected, used, and shared.
Much needs to be done in terms of regulation. The general public must demand stronger data protection rules to prevent misuse and abuse. As the digital age advances, the conversation around data and who owns the user can only amplify.
Until then, as users of platforms like Facebook, we have to be as cautious as possible with our information. After all, our data is not only an extension of us but also a commodity in the digital marketplace.