The critically acclaimed film “The Social Network” recounts the origins of Facebook: How a few cutthroat young geniuses created the defining software of our time, and perhaps betrayed each other in the process.
If they should choose to film a sequel, it may center around the company’s betrayal of its own customers. There are few businesses that have so thoroughly captured our attention, and changed the way we live and view the world. Unfortunately, its rampant abuse of power -- specifically with regard to user data -- has forever blemished the way it will be remembered.
Long after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is still unfolding to this day, Facebook is making new headlines for its mishandling of customer data. For example, a $35 billion lawsuit against the brand is currently moving forward, focused around the company’s alleged misuse of facial recognition data. With two billion active users and climbing, the premier social platform is under rightful scrutiny for its abuse of trust, the extent of which worsens by the day.
Yet while they are the most notorious offenders, they are not alone in these misdeeds. Not by a long shot.
The term “data brokers” was coined recently to describe companies who hoard personal data about consumers and sell it to other organizations. Well-known entities like ZoomInfo, Oracle, and Experian qualify for the label, as reported by Fast Company. There are hundreds more on record and likely thousands of companies taking part in one way or another. Ironically, Facebook announced in September that it suspended “tens of thousands” of apps for suspected hoarding of user profile data.
Data brokers, or information brokers, operate in a grey area of business ethics. It’s no secret that each of us generates data that is considered valuable to marketers and the like. Organizations far and wide are now paying top dollar for these insights, and the companies collecting this information -- from our web activity, the online forms we fill out, and so on -- are happy to provide it.
But was it ever theirs to share, despite the vague smaller print on customer agreements? That is a question we’re now reckoning with, and navigating together all at once.
As we’re learning, the issues are quite widespread, even extending into government organizations. A recent exposé by Vice revealed that the Department of Motor Vehicles is selling data from those who come in to register a vehicle or apply for a new license. In 2017 alone, Florida’s DMV pulled in $77 million by selling data to “thousands of businesses,” according to the report. This includes private investigators who “spy on people for profit.”
Outsider data breaches are unsettling enough; there is nary a safe space to be found, from your Alexa speaker to your virtual private network to your food delivery app. As the trend of data brokering reveals, though, our personal information is fair game among the companies we trust the most. These exchanges may not pose as immediate a threat as, say, your bank account being hacked. But it forces us to question the integrity of these companies, and their intentions over the long term.
Knowing that our data is in unwanted hands -- from our contact information to our buying decisions -- is a uniquely modern source of anxiety, made all the worse by the fact that reputable companies are often behind it.
For those people desiring complete control over their identity, we have no choice but to be cautious and take extra steps with each business relationship. Many state regulators are working hard to introduce new legislation, and insist upon transparency with how businesses handle customer data -- the proposed California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is a major example.
With that said, the road ahead will be long and bumpy. For the time being, consumers need to be extra vigilant with what they sign, and hold businesses accountable. Just as we read the labels on our food or test the locks on our homes, there will be a significant amount of personal effort in safeguarding our data from being sold.
How much is your data worth to you? At this rate, it is hard to predict how many organizations are viewing your privileged information as a new form of currency -- or for that matter, how many businesses will in the future. But in the case of Facebook and all the rest, their popularity in the face of questionable ethics has been resilient to say the least. Some brands have so engrained themselves in the public lifestyle that, to paraphrase a certain politician, they could probably shoot someone in the middle of the street and still maintain their appeal.
This is one of the grim realities of the digital age. And it puts users in an uncomfortable position, having to choose between the benefits of these platforms and their personal privacy. Nobody wants to hear their favorite companies are selling them out, just as no voter wants to hear their preferred candidate is corrupt. Nowhere is this more true than Facebook. Despite the growing #DeleteFacebook movement on social media, millions of users are putting their heads in the sand so they can continue to enjoy the Facebook service.
Truth be told, if you ask the users themselves, data sharing may be a small price to pay for using this or other products and services. As these stories pile on, though, business owners -- especially those in tech -- should be thinking long and hard about their own approach. The rules are evolving in real time, as with technology itself. But selling data with little or no notice to customers is a shady practice no matter how you slice it. As consumers are becoming more aware and learning how to secure their own data, businesses should strive to set a positive example, rather than cash in on this privileged information.
(You can read the LocatorX Promise of Data Privacy here.)
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