Reflections on the reality of privacy and data protection in the digital age.
If you’ve been following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, you’d probably know that Facebook’s privacy protection measures are under close scrutiny, and things have gotten serious enough for CEO Mark Zuckerberg to trade his grey-tee-and-jeans ensemble for a more respectable fit-for-Congress get-up (or what The New York Times hilariously dubbed the “I’m sorry suit”).
Anyway. The news doesn’t seem to have caused much of a stir in Singapore — at least not from what I’ve observed. No one I know has trashed their Facebook account in the spirit of #DeleteFacebook (that Twitter campaign which saw SpaceX and Tesla’s Elon Musk along with some other big names deleting their pages).
I’ve been wondering why that is. Then again, we’re talking about a city where many are accustomed to exchanging their personal details for lucky draws and shopping vouchers. A country where privacy law is fairly new — the Personal Data Protection Act was introduced in 2012 — and where state surveillance is said to be a taken-for-granted fact of life.
Or perhaps some of us remain unbothered because we feel we have nothing to hide. Perhaps some of us accept that our data constitutes payment for a service that connects us to loved ones near and far, feeds us reads we may otherwise not encounter, and entertains us with cute animal videos whenever we want to do a little more than twiddle our thumbs. Perhaps some of us simply haven’t thought much about the ramifications of companies and governments having access to the most granular information about us.
How many of us actually read the multi-page user agreements of websites and apps before checking the consent box? And if we do take the time to read through the many clauses, do we actually understand the legalese?
Simon Chester, law faculty dean of the National University of Singapore writes: “Even if we did, the sheer volume of such ‘agreements’ would lead to consent fatigue, making it hard for us to distinguish harmless services from selling our immortal soul — or, worse, exposing ourselves to identity theft”.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown how data mined from social media platforms like Facebook can be misused to micro-target and manipulate users. But as Rich Ling, a sociologist and communications professor at Nanyang Technological University points out, social media and other forms of digital traces can also be a “force for social good”. Ling’s insightful op-ed gives examples of how big data has been used to aid important efforts in disease prevention and disaster relief.
Could Facebook have done more to prevent such abuse? Sure. Should you quit Facebook because of its failure? Think about it some more.
My sense is that deleting Facebook isn’t the solution. Our response to the news needs to be more than a kneejerk reaction. To quit social media, as Ling aptly puts it, would be to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.
In The Guardian, Safiya Noble, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of Southern California, is quoted as saying: “Deleting individual Facebook accounts will not solve the total datafication of our lives. This issue… [is] about the many companies that are tracking and profiling us, and the abuses of power that come from having vast troves of information about us, available for exploitation.” Facebook isn’t the only one.
Quitting Facebook would mean losing a quick and easy means to stay updated on the lives of friends and family all around the world, and I’m not ready to do that — just yet. But am I disturbed by the revelations concerning the misuse of data? Yes. Will I be managing my social media activity more carefully now? Definitely.
If like me, you choose not to delete your Facebook account, check your privacy settings at the very least. If you don’t know how, follow this informative guide by Wired. To find out whether your data was shared with Cambridge Analytica, click here. Still feeling paranoid about your digital trail? Don’t stop there; do a digital spring clean. Helpful resources can be found on the site of Tactical Technology Collective, a non-profit Berlin-based organisation that raises awareness on privacy, digital security, and the ethics of data.
Finally, as governments around the world demand more accountability from tech companies concerning the management of users’ data and their role in stemming the spread of fake news, we should also reflect on our expectations of our country’s lawmakers and regulators. The question that follows is then: Who will, to borrow Chester’s phrase, “watch the watchers”?