The place of social media in our culture has taken a dramatic turn over the past few months. What seemed safe now seems insecure, and privacy that we took for granted now seems as though it never existed.
So what happened and why should we care? There were two big revelations that led to Facebook’s CEO testifying before Congress. First, it was revealed that a firm specializing in data analysis allowed a political organization access to Facebook data. The firm, Cambridge Analytica, had access to Facebook data for research purposes and it appears one of their employees shared that data with a political organization for them to use for their objectives.
Second, as a result, it becomes apparent that Facebook is collecting our data and sharing it with others as a part of how they make money. This left many with a lot of questions about online privacy and who has access to our data. While this sounds complex, it really isn’t. Let me try to answer many of the common questions.
What is Data Analysis?
Wikipedia defines data analysis as “the process of inspecting, cleansing, transforming and modeling data with the goal of discovering useful information, suggesting conclusions and supporting decision-making.” English translation: using data to make money. This is the core of how Facebook and many other social media networks make money. While we may take social media services for granted, let’s remember that they have to make money. Facebook doesn’t allow us to use their website out of the goodness of their hearts. The community they have built and the tools we all use for connection, communication and ministry all exist to make money. Server farms cost money to operate and software engineers want their salary direct deposits to happen every month.
Data analysis has been part of Facebook since the beginning. Their ability to analyze data on the demographics of those using their platform allowed them to target advertising and marketing in a unique, powerful and lucrative way. As another way to monetize their data, they licensed other firms to use their data for similar purposes. Enter Cambridge Analytica.
Is my data safe online?
That depends on how you define safe. If by safe you mean that you have complete control over who can see your data and that your data is strictly controlled by the privacy settings of any social media website, then no.
If by safe you mean that your data and privacy settings apply to individual users and user groups accessing your data, but that others are able to use your data as a part of research and data analysis as per the terms of service of a particular social media platform, then yes.
Notice the difference: Facebook and other sites do a good job of allowing you to control, on a user or user group basis, who can see your data. For example, if you want to block me from seeing your post on Facebook (or any other platform) you can do that with tremendous ease. However, if you want to prevent a contract firm like a Cambridge Analytica or a university research program from seeing your data, whether anonymously or not, you do not have that control.
What brought all this to light was one of those researchers who shared Facebook data beyond the scope of their research and outside of the licensing agreement with Facebook for using that data. The fact that it was shared with a political organization only fueled the fire, but whether it was shared with Donald, Hillary or Bob the Builder doesn’t matter. The fact is the data was shared in violation of the data sharing agreement, in this case between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.
Is Online Privacy Dead?
No, in so much as saying online privacy in terms of you having complete control over your data never really existed. Since the first day, Facebook came online, their terms of service have been pretty clear about how they will use your data. What amazes me is that there is any real surprise here. This is how social media makes money to exist and what makes it so powerful. When I read that Cambridge Analytica had access to Facebook data my initial response was, “Duh.” Don’t be so naïve as to think that you have complete control of what you post online. There is no such thing as complete control over anything in the digital realm.
The story in all of this was the breach of contract between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook when the data was shared with someone not licensed to have it. Think of it in terms of a copyright violation when you make copies of a song or book for all of your friends. That’s illegal, and so is what the Cambridge Analytica employee did in sharing the information with those not licensed to have it.
What does this mean to us?
Several things come to mind. First, the Bible is clear about how we are to live our lives, and what the Bible says applies to how we live our lives in both the real world and the virtual world, despite being written thousands of years before Al Gore invented the Internet. 1 Cor. 10:31 says, “Whether therefore you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” This is why I don’t care if Cambridge Analytica, Donald, Hillary or Bob the Builder have access to what I post. My goal is to do my posting “for the Lord and not for men,” as Colossians 3:23 tells us to do.
Second, I’ve known since the beginning that this is how social media works. They make their money on our data, so everything I post I know is part of their money-making machine. Again, applying 1 Cor. 10:31 and Col. 3:23 to what you post makes some anonymous data analysis company also seeing my data less important to me. I’m OK with everyone seeing my age, my religious background, my political affiliations, my relationship status and more. If I didn’t want anyone to see that, whether you or a data analysis firm, I wouldn’t have posted it in the first place.
Third, this doesn’t mean I’m going to go off the grid. I realize that some may take this as a wakeup call and want to get their data offline. I get that and understand that each person and organization will have to decide if they want to be part of an online community, understanding that their data is what pays for that community to exist, or if they want to go offline.
Is there any good news?
Absolutely! First, I don’t think the users or the social media providers, like Facebook, are going to be as naïve as they have been. Hopefully, users are paying more attention to user agreements, and providers like Facebook are making those agreements easier to read and understand.
Second, many new tools, which should have already been in place, are being released. Some have already existed, like the ability to download everything Facebook knows about you. It’s a powerful tool and it will surprise you what they know. At least now, more people know this exists.
Other new tools are coming to keep users more informed of who is using their data and even who provides some of the content on their services. Many of these new tools, like publishing who is responsible for a political ad or news story, seem common sense but are now being enabled as a result of the naiveté on both sides being shattered.
None of this surprised God or His Word. Data stewardship is something we should all take seriously, especially as we manage data in ministry. Stewarding data is not only an organizational task but also an individual responsibility.