In 2004, college student Mark Zuckerberg launched a small website from his dorm room. At the time, the new site’s aim was to connect students around campus so they could share experiences but it’s popularity soon grew. Now 14 years later, Zuckerberg’s social media platform, Facebook is the fifth most valuable company in the world.
Last week, Facebook posted record profits of £3.6bn for the first three months of the year. But for a service that is provided free of charge to its users, how do they make money? They sell ads targeted at us.
In order for Facebook to show us the most relevant ads (and therefore the ones that will be most effective), Facebook needs our personal data. Every time we log on we share our personal data with the social media giant. By compiling all the data we share - information like our age, our location, our favourite holiday destination - Facebook is able to create a file on each of its users.
When pieced together, this data could give an invaluable insight into our how we think, what we like to buy and even potentially, our political preferences.
Four years ago, a Cambridge academic, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, installed a personality quiz on Facebook. 270 000 people downloaded the quiz and by doing so, shared their Facebook data with Dr Kogan.
What those people didn’t know was they had shared all their friends’ profile data with Dr Kogan as well. Bringing the total to potentially 87m facebook profiles.
This data was then allegedly used by a company called Cambridge Analytica to influence American voters during the last presidential election, something Cambridge Analytica have denied. After weeks of public scrutiny, Cambridge Analytica has now decided to shut its business.
Claims of a breach of users’ privacy are now being investigated both here and abroad. Mark Zuckerberg has faced lengthy formal questioning by US senators and representatives.
In the UK, Damian Collins MP is chair of a select committee which has been hearing evidence from Facebook and others about the way Facebook collect and share data.
In response, Facebook told us;
“As people use Facebook they share information and content - whether it's liking a post, sharing a photo or updating their profile, we use this information to give a better service. __ We provide advertisers with reports about the kinds of people seeing their ads.... but we don’t share information that personally identifies you".
It’s not only Facebook who relies on advertising revenue. Google also sells ad space and they are eager to learn as much as they can about you.
Tech experts, Geoff White and Glenn Wilkinson explained:
Tonight asked Google about this. Here’s what they said;
“In order to make the privacy choices that are right for them, it's essential that people can understand and control their Google data. Over the years, we've developed tools like My Account expressly for this purpose, and we'd encourage everyone to review it regularly.”
Today, data is described as the oil of the digital age. In the 21st century, large multinational companies are mining, processing and earning billions of pounds from the information we give them.
Nicholas Oliver believes that as the owners of our data, we should also be the ones to earn money from it. He runs a website which pays users every time they interact with brands who value the information.
For some however, the answer might be to stop the data grab when it comes to our information. Geoff White advised that it’s up to us to control who, when and how much access we allow.
- Facebook, Google & You: What They Know is on ITV at 7:30pm on Thursday 3rd May