A fun little party
12 years. That’s how long our longest-tenured Facebook user at TeamRed has been using the popular social media platform.
He remembers the platform long before there were brand pages, ads, and stories. In those days, Facebook felt like a lighter version of Myspace, something that wasn’t as cluttered.
It was a fun space where you kept in touch with other college friends, where you shared simple information like your political views, your interests, your favorite TV shows, bands, and movies, and of course your favorite quotes.
When you added someone, you could even share a little bit of information about how you knew each other. It was so obviously geared toward students that “We hooked up” was one of the options.
In its infancy, there weren’t even any private inboxes. In fact, while Facebook was great, you still had to use instant messaging services like MSN or AIM for convenient real-time conversations. Otherwise, you had to type a SINGLE message on someone’s wall, and then they’d have to post a solo reply on your wall too. It was far from the days of messenger, and comment threads that now conveniently expand under an original post.
In short, Facebook was something fun. Even as it expanded beyond colleges, to high schools, and eventually to the general public, its status as the world’s best ‘keep in touch’ tool was unquestionable.
However, even Facebook wasn’t immune to one of life’s greatest maxims: things change.
Changing the game
Facebook also truly changed how we communicate with each other. Sure, it wasn’t the first site to let you add friends and share photos, but it was the one that really stuck.
For the first time, many of us were given a platform to share a window of our lives to an audience that was important to us.
Facebook’s widespread adoption amongst both friends and family members also made some people truly grasp the importance of online privacy for the first time. Some refused to add family members for fear of intrusion into their privacy.
Others created multiple accounts that would allow them to keep in touch with friends and family separately. This isn’t something that really happened in the past, as one’s grandmother wouldn’t have Myspace, and a parent was unlikely to have any interest in exploring Xanga to find out what their kids were writing.
This is important to note because these concerns, while very valid, would come to be engulfed by a much greater privacy problem in the future.
The evolution of Facebook toward a commercial entity was a slow one. It crept up on a lot of users without them suspecting it. First, it was small ads started to appear on the side of the page. Then, the branded pages came, and as features like the news feed were developed, so too did the advertising evolve.
However, it wasn’t the product commercialization that would eventually lead to Facebook’s fall from grace. It would be the way it handled personal data, took advantage of its users’ nonchalant attitude toward personal privacy, and the involvement of entities with sinister goals.
As a digital ecosystem that didn’t produce any physical products, Facebook needed something else to monetize. Luckily for them, there was something that users had been handing over on a silver platter for years: personal data and their online behavior patterns.
That’s where the trouble started. Because Facebook had an unprecedented amount of behavioral data available, it likely became difficult to ascertain what should remain private, and what could be accessed by third parties.
When you add that to the ever-changing nature of the platform, and how many people had access to the data, it was only a matter of time.
The quote above paints a much rosier picture of Facebook compared to its current reality. Unfortunately for the social media giant, there is increasing evidence that shadowy groups are using the service to achieve the opposite results.
Instead of empowering people, Facebook has been used as a tool to misinform. In the case of Cambridge Analytica, it has been alleged that data from up to 50 million (or up to 87 million, according to WIRED)people was taken and used to send political ads that may have shaped voter behavior.
To makes things worse, Facebook had reportedly known about the Cambridge Analytica problem since 2015 and didn’t act until it came to light in 2018.
Late 2018 brought even more scrutiny, after it was alleged that Facebook had allowed large tech companies like Netflix and Spotify to gain access to users’ private messages.
The most recent blow to Facebook's reputation came to light in November 2019, when it was revealed that 100 developers had managed to improperly access restricted data, such as names and profile photos.
The lack of clarity about Facebook and its affiliates’ access to user information is now at the heart of the controversy. At this point, it will be extremely difficult for the company to rehabilitate its once-pristine reputation.
Of even bigger concern is the fact that Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp. Their heavy control of some of the world’s largest social networks and messaging applications open up even more avenues for abuse.
It is also alarming that the founders of both Instagram and WhatsApp made high-profile exits in 2018, with many believing that the loss of freedom from Facebook’s interference – and their mistrust of the parent company’s motivations – were key factors.
It’s never good when methods of mass communication are under the control of a single company, and it’s even more worrying when there’s very little reason to believe that the company has users’ best interests at heart.
Reclaiming your privacy
So, what can you do to protect yourself? Plenty.
First, and most important of all, you have got to develop a sense of skepticism about any digital services that require you to give up your data privacy. This may seem cynical to some, but one of the reasons that things have gotten so bad now is that you’ve likely given up your right to privacy without knowing it. Services that use your data to make money may not have your bests interests at heart.
Next, you’ve got to frequently check the privacy settings when you use any services that you share personal information on. Social networks would prefer that you share all of your posts and information to the general public. Don’t let them do that. Whenever a site or service has an update, make sure to go back to your privacy settings to ensure that they haven’t been changed.
Additionally, you should also read the privacy policies and terms of service for any digital services that you sign up for. At the very least, do a little research to see whether or not other users or journalists have uncovered unusual clauses that are detrimental to you.
You should also remember to control the flow of personal information that you share online. Avoid sharing the following information in public posts on social networks:
- Your home and work address
- The names of your children and pets
- Where your children go to school
- Information about your daily routines
This kind of information can be used to try to steal your identity, so you should also avoid using any of the information above as your answers to verification questions on digital services.
Never forget that your privacy should belong to you. Though the tech industry may want you to give up as much of your data as possible, you can make smart decisions that will help you control your data privacy.
While the GDPR may be in effect in the European Union, many other countries do not have such stringent privacy laws. Those laws aren’t immune to human error either, as shown by the example of an Amazon Alexa user who received someone else’s private recordings after making a GDPR request.