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Your Facebook data: should you be worried?

Your Facebook data: should you be worried?

No doubt you’ll already have heard about the latest, and some would say biggest, scandal to hit social media company Facebook. In an exposé made by the Guardian newspaper it was revealed that the data of around 85 million of its users was acquired unethically by analytics company Cambridge Analytica. Worse than that, it would seem that the company then used this data to skew the opinions of voters in the run up to the US Presidential election.

So, what does this mean for the rest of us? Is our data safe in the hands of Zuckerberg’s minions, or should we all be deleting our Facebook accounts post haste? Here’s everything you need to know about your Facebook data and what this scandal means for you.

What exactly happened?

Research firm Cambridge Analytica harvested intimate information regarding the opinions, preferences, habits and interests of more than 85 million US Facebook users. They then used this information to steer people’s opinion on the US election, potentially helping Trump to win his surprise victory. It has been mooted that they used similar tactics here in the UK to influence Brexit.

This came to light when a whistle-blower who had worked with the company, Christopher Wylie, talked to the Guardian about the practices, which were then revealed earlier this month.

How did Cambridge Analytica get this data?

Technically, the people who had their data scraped in this process had actually consented to having it done. This is because they all downloaded an app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’, presumably without reading the user agreements.

You might be thinking ‘how stupid, it’s their own fault then’, but let’s be honest here. How many apps or services have you signed up for without reading the Terms of Service? We’re often impatient and user agreements are long and boring, so we simply check ‘yes’ and get on with what we wanted to do.


No doubt we often wonder if there was a clause in there that we should have been worried about, but assumed that the company was trustworthy and reputable, so didn’t let it bother us too much. Clearly, we should be more fastidious about who and how we trust.

But the problem didn’t end here. As well as scraping data about those users who signed up to the app, Cambridge Analytica was able to access the data of all their friends too. Facebook users have, on average, 155 friends each, although some have a lot more than that, so you can see how the data breach expanded exponentially.

What did they do with this data?

Cambridge Analytica used all this valuable information to create a number of models and profiling tools which could be used to target specific ads at users. This is nothing new; many businesses use information about individuals to make their adverts more targeted. However, the big difference here was that the data was used for political ads; to change users opinion and potentially influence big decisions like Brexit and the US vote.

They developed a programme which could figure out what type of messaging you would be most receptive to, and how you would consume it. It also figured out how many times you would need to be targeted in order to change your opinion on something. It was a ‘full-service propaganda machine’, and although we’ll never know precisely what results it generated, it was a ground-breaking tool with the potential to change the future.

Companies harvest data about us all the time, from Google targeting ads based on our interests to websites offering products based on our previous shopping habits. However, this is the first time a company has been exposed for trying to do something as major as influence how the world is run.

Should you be worried?

In an interview with City AM, Dr Julia Powles from New York University School of Law said that, yes indeed, we should be worried. Whether or not the activities of Cambridge Analytica actually had an influence on either Brexit or the US election is beside the point; she said that the mere fact that a company was able to get its hands on the intimate data of millions of users was something we should all be concerned about.

Most worryingly, this was not a ‘breach’ of Facebook data, although some publications have been calling it this. There was no compromise of security, no hacking involved and no virus. This was business-as-usual for Facebook, and something which is happening every day.


Since the scandal has come to light, Mark Zuckerberg has apologised and announced that Facebook will be changing the way that it shares data with third parties. But has that solved the problem? Not really; Cambridge Analytica and hundreds like them already have the information, the models, the programmes and the algorithms that they need to exert covert influences over our decisions and opinions, and that can’t be undone.

What can you do to make your data safer?

If you’re worried about having important data about you falling into the wrong hands, maybe it’s time to review who sees what on sites like Facebook. Here’s a quick guide to making your Facebook data more secure.

  • Limit who can see your posts: From the ‘settings’ section of your profile, go to the privacy tab and select who can see your future posts. The default on Facebook is ‘public’, which means anyone can read whatever you post to Facebook. Choose ‘friends’ to have only your approved friends see your posts.
  • Limit old posts too: If you had, perhaps unknowingly, been posting publicly for some time, you will also need to limit your old posts to hide previous submissions that you made. You’ll find this in the Privacy tab also.
  • Hide your profile from strangers: If you’ve ever had a random person friend request you, you’ll know how annoying and worrying this can be. To stop this, use the dropdown menu below ‘who can send you friend requests’ and choose ‘Friends of friends’. This way only people likely to be within your real social circle will be able to friend request you. It’s worth also stopping search engines from linking to your profile, which you can do at the foot of this page.
  • Limit access to your timeline: Having others post to your timeline and see posts on your timeline can be risky too, exposing your activity to people you don’t know at all. In settings, go to timeline and tagging to control how others interact with your own timeline.
  • Block unwanted users: Blocked users can’t see what you post on your timeline, cannot tag you, invite you to events or add you as a friend. You can block strangers or even those you are friends with, helping to keep more of your life private from those you prefer not to be involved with.
  • Set your profile to review tags: Posts you are tagged in will appear on your timeline, but if you’d prefer to catch sight of what people are tagging you in, set timeline review controls to ensure permission is granted before something is posted to your timeline.
  • Check the apps you’ve connected: In settings and apps, you’ll be able to see all the applications that you’ve connected to your Facebook account. If you don’t use some of these, it’s worth deleting them from the list so they can no longer access your data.
  • Change ad preferences: In settings and then adverts, you can alter your ad preferences and see what Facebook thinks you are interested in. The desktop version of Facebook shows much more than the mobile app for this, so it’s worth firing up the PC for this task.
  • See what Facebook has on you: You are allowed to download all of the data that Facebook holds on you, and as part of getting to know your online profile, it’s worth doing this. Facebook records everything you do, from links you’ve clicked to messages, photos, posts you’ve shared and IP addresses you use. It’s a lot of information, and a bit of a wake-up call if you’re guilty of over sharing in the past.

As with any online activity, using Facebook should be done with caution. If you’ve posted something you’d rather your employer, government or Mum didn’t see, you probably shouldn’t be posting it at all. Installing apps, giving websites permission to link with your Facebook and taking online quizzes that require you to log in with Facebook all run the risk of exposing your data to those who may abuse it in the future, so read the Terms, check the permissions you’re granting and avoid anything that looks even slightly suspicious.

There’s no need to feel overly worried about Facebook due to this recent scandal. After all, when you go online there are numerous companies scraping data about you ALL THE TIME. However, it’s worth locking down your profile as far as you can and staying aware of what you share about yourself, no matter what you’re doing online. Most data collection is simply to help businesses sell things to you, but the Cambridge Analytica fiasco has proven that these companies could be far more powerful than we realise, so tread carefully.

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Vanessa Simms
Vanessa writes on a range of subjects for the Search South blog, but has a strong focus on her core interest area of Google AdWords management best practices.