Data Privacy in the Digital Age

This past March, the New York Times broke the news that data firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from millions of unknowing Facebook users in order to influence political campaigns. The scandal garnered instant reactions from Facebook users and politicians that sparked a conversation about data privacy. These conversations and the resulting regulations (or lack thereof) have left many people wondering, how should we feel about data privacy in the digital age?

What happened?

Cambridge Analytica collected private information from 87 million Facebook users without their consent or knowledge. The information was gathered by an outside researcher at Cambridge University and was supposedly for “academic” purposes. However, the researcher illegally passed the information along to Cambridge Analytica, a private data firm not associated with Cambridge University. The firm then used this data to develop psychological profiles of users to target political messaging at specific people during the 2016 presidential election, thereby potentially altering individuals voting behavior.

What’s being done about it?

In April 2018, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress regarding how the social media giant manages user data and privacy. He also declined an invitation to testify in front of the UK Parliament, but met with representatives from the European Parliament in May 2018. The data breach has prompted discussions in the United States about new regulations and underscored Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulations, which were already in the making prior to the scandal.

Additionally, Facebook alerted the users that were affected by the data beach and has agreed to internally reevaluate their data protection standards. Most recently, the platform conducted an investigation of apps on their platform that had access to large amounts of user data and has suspended 200 apps based on misuse of data.

What does this mean for the future?

As a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its aftermath, more people are aware of the dangers that accompany putting personal information online. It has called into question how social media platforms will (or will not) be regulated in the future. It has also caused PR and marketing professionals to evaluate the role of social media for brands.

Although this has translated to large numbers of users deleting their Facebook accounts, Facebook is still growing. People use Facebook for a number of reasons, from keeping up with family and friends who live far away to marketing products and services. That’s not going away any time soon. Even in the face of the #DeleteFacebook movement, individuals encouraged Facebook users to make Instagram their primary social media profile…even though the platform is owned by Facebook.

For the public relations and marketing industries, these changes may cause us to question how to most effectively use social media for our clients. As these platforms continue to multiply and expand, it is our job to identify and pursue the most effective communication channels while ensuring our client’s information is never at risk. Additionally, as we collect data to target audiences for our clients, we must be mindful that we are handling someone’s personal information. So how do we get our clients the best results while remaining risk averse?

What does this mean?

For our clients

Having a solid data security strategy for our clients is a top priority. To do this, we must build trust and keep it by always maintaining complete transparency with our clients in regards to how and where we use their data. At the same time, we also need to consider user fluidity between and loyalty to certain social media platforms. If we have determined that a client’s target audience is loyal to a specific platform, it is worth it to invest time in staying savvy to the data privacy policies of that platform. If a client’s audience tends to fluctuate between platforms, staying current on the basics of data privacy policies across multiple platforms is important to consider as well.

For individuals

Users are losing trust in social media platforms as they become more aware of what is being shared. We have developed a sensitivity to information sharing that we did not have before. We question where our information is going, who can access it and what they may do with it. This may inherently affect individual’s behavior on these platforms and cause users to second guess which platforms they will continue to use.

There is no single correct answer to how we should feel about data privacy. It’s a personal preference, albeit one that affects all of us in some way. If you chose to, you can take steps to protect your data. The best way to keep data safe online is to stay informed of the latest updates to social media platforms. As privacy settings and conditions are constantly changing, knowing what these changes entail is crucial to protecting your online presence. Although you may not want to read one hundred pages and sift through all the fine print, knowing the gist of what’s going on should be a priority.

Share Article