Redress Risk Management (post until May 31/19)

Facebook scandal boosts awareness of data privacy

Canadians’ growing awareness of data ownership rules could be a silver lining in the Facebook privacy scandal, Toronto litigator Sharon Bauer tells

A joint investigation by the London Observer and the New York Times revealed a U.K.-based researcher obtained data from around 50 million Facebook users whose friends had completed an online personality quiz and sold it to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, a company connected to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S.

The firm then used the information to create psychographic profiles for users of the social media giant in order to target them with appealing political ads.

Bauer, a partner with Wolfe Lawyers, says the episode has forced many people to think for the first time about the information they willingly provide to internet companies, and what they are allowed to do with it.  

“I hope this scandal brings to light the privacy issues associated with the data crumbs we leave behind while manoeuvring our way around social media apps,” she says. “It may take some time, but I hope we get to the point where consumers demand ownership over their own data because it shouldn’t belong to Facebook or any other company.

“We need more comprehensive privacy laws and more vigorous enforcement of them because we’ve seen that self-regulation by these companies has not been very effective. This case is a textbook example of that,” Bauer adds.

However, she acknowledges that the unprecedented success of sites such as Facebook and Twitter means things are likely to proceed slowly.

“Social media is an extension of our lives, so it’s hard to separate ourselves after becoming so reliant on it,” Bauer says. “Having said that, I think this Facebook story will make people more conscious about their data and what they feel comfortable sharing, knowing that it is being collected and analyzed.”

Bauer says the latest Facebook story highlights a key shift in the type of information companies can learn about social media users, enabled by recent technology advances.

Traditionally, data miners focused on combining demographic information such as users’ age, sex, and location, and translating that into predictions about their affluence and preferences, she explains.

By contrast, Cambridge Analytica was allegedly able to collect psychographic data, often without the knowledge of users, enabling the firm to create personality profiles of individuals.

“They are learning things about you that you may not even know yourself, and using that knowledge to try to influence the way you behave,” Bauer says. “It all seems a little sinister, particularly when the aim is to convince people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Bauer says there are potentially positive uses for psychographic data, such as encouraging smoking cessation and targeting counselling to people at risk of suicide.

However, she says in any case, social users should be made aware of what their data is being used for.

“We freely give away our personal information without even realizing it,” Bauer says. “The terms and conditions we agree to when we use social media are often too long and complicated. The privacy settings are difficult to find.”

She says Canada should think about following the lead of the European Union, which later this year will enact its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The regulations, which replace the existing Data Privacy Directive with more comprehensive privacy rules, come into force in May 2018 and apply to any organization that collects or processes personal information about EU residents. 

The GDPR also incorporates new rights for individuals whose personal information has been collected, such as the right to be forgotten, which allows people to object to and request the deletion of information about themselves under certain circumstances.

In addition, the new regulation takes an expansive approach when it comes to fines for non-compliance, which can reach as high as the larger of four per cent of an organization’s global turnover and 20 million euros.

“We need strict privacy laws that spell out exactly what data can be obtained from consumers, and how that data can be used by companies,” Bauer says.

To Read More Sharon Bauer Posts Click Here
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