Facebook, the social media giant that collects data on about a quarter of humanity, is in the hot seat over the disclosure of personal information about 50 million of its users to a voter-profiling company. With both Congress and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) now probing this latest Facebook security lapse, we can expect the next chapter is about to be written on privacy protections for the ongoing revolution known as “big data.”
Every country, not just the United States, is trying to find a nuanced balance between secrecy and the transparency of personal data, such as facial recognition of shoppers. Facebook is not alone. Government lapses in privacy are common, too. Facebook just happens to be the biggest provider of data, much to its profit.
Society gains by allowing open data if the purpose is to stop or catch terrorists, swindlers, and pedophiles. Just as important is the “right to be left alone.” With each breach of data, new rules must be written.
The current rules are still not clear enough when it comes to data culled in targeting voters for a political campaign. Anyone who has answered personal questions on a local census for his or her city or town knows such information can be used, or misused, by politicians.
We also willingly hand over data to companies and rely on their commitments to privacy. It appears Facebook was not careful enough in how its data was used for the 2016 presidential campaign.
The mass surveillance of “social data” is only going to increase. What must rise with it is a recognition that privacy is essential for individuals to achieve their unique expression, or their identity.
“Without privacy, concepts such as identity, dignity, autonomy, independence, imagination, and creativity are more difficult to realize and maintain,” writes David Anderson, Britain’s former reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation.
Privacy allows the very trust that companies and government rely on to fulfill their purposes. If a privacy breach erodes trust, the data can begin to dry up.
The task in such cases is to find a trustworthy arbiter that can balance privacy and other interests, such as security and business. Will Facebook be able to now rebuild that trust? Or will its future depend on new rules from the FTC and Congress? Finding the best privacy protections is an ongoing struggle, one that must ensure trust remains a key quality for digital users.