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Data breaches and Facebook

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Back in February, my column on Big Data started with this paragraph. “I previously wrote about the fourth industrial revolution and data being perceived as the ‘gold’ or ‘oil’ of previous economic revolutions. The volume and velocity of the large amounts of data produced and transmitted throughout the world is referred to as ‘Big Data’.

“Combined with digital transformation—that is steadily changing business practice and country economies—understanding, harnessing and extracting the value of big data will create a new economic and social revolution.”

The moral and financial mess ($37 billion wiped off Facebook (FB) market value?) that Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg currently find themselves in is a reflection of the power of Big Data—and accusations continue as to the use (abuse) of this technology to influence elections in the most powerful economy in the world.

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No doubt we will see a ream of new regulations on this whole area over the coming months. So, what exactly happened, and how does this affect us FB users? FB gave permission for a reputable University of Cambridge psychology professor to harvest data gathered from those users who downloaded a personality questionnaire app.

Doing this, however, also allowed the professor to collect data on their location, their friends and content they had Liked. In all, data from over 50 million FB users was collected. This was then provided by him to a company called Cambridge Analytica which was working to develop techniques that could be used to influence voters.

Undercover reports then recorded company management boasting about using this data to influence the US elections which saw Donald Trump become president, as well as successfully influencing elections in other countries, including some in Africa. In my opinion, their professional integrity came into question when they were reported to have talked about using sex workers and bribes to influence decisions.

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This company has come under scrutiny by international regulators, and I doubt they will survive for very much longer. FB and Mark Zuckerberg have come under greater scrutiny on why there was no protection of their users. What we are really talking about here is the selling of data—yours and mine— in bulk, to different organisations for money. Indeed large sums of money.

The question of data privacy revealed by this is very damaging to FB with more than 1.4 billion users logging on every day. The information they share, including who their friends are and what they like and dislike, is what FB sells to other companies who want to target specific customers.

So, how do we protect ourselves from any data breaches of this sort. First and foremost, and this is common sense, never post personal information about yourself that you are not comfortable to share. Simple, isn’t it? Examples being, your mobile phone number, your physical address, even your financial details. But believe me, people do—every day.

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