Menu Close
It seems near impossible to keep control of our personal data – and Facebook does anything but help. kalhh/Pixabay, CC BY

It’s impossible for Facebook users to protect themselves from data exploitation

The London-based data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica has been accused of using illegally gathered information from more than 50 million Facebook users to support Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign. Facebook has suspended the accounts of the firm along with Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan and consultant-turned-whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, who were responsible for harvesting the data from Facebook.

The personal data was gathered using a Facebook application called “thisisyourdigitallife” created by Kogan through his firm Global Science Research (GSR). The data was passed on to Cambridge Analytica, which claims to have deleted the data when the company realised that it was collected contrary to Facebook’s terms of service.

Psychometric profile for targeted advertising

The original idea was to use the collected data to target political ads at people based on their psychometric profiles. This concept was adapted by Cambridge Analytica and Kogan from work done in part by another Cambridge University psychologist, David Stillwell. Along with researchers Matz, Kosinski and Nave, Stillwell showed that advertising that was tailored to a person’s level of extraversion or openness was far more effective at getting them to click on an ad and ultimately buy something.

The psychometric personality profile was built up by asking the users to complete an assessment questionnaire and also to allow an application to look at the user’s Facebook posts and likes. The profile is based on five factors:

  • Neuroticism (calm or stressed)

  • Openness (traditional or liberal)

  • Extraversion (introverted or outgoing)

  • Agreeableness (cooperative or competitive)

  • Conscientiousness (organised or flexible)

Using information about the posts that someone likes on Facebook has been shown to greatly enhance the accuracy of determining a person’s profile.

The process of working out the profile and then targeting the ads is not actually that sophisticated, as the ads designed for low and high extraversion show.

Sample of questions that can be used to create a psychometric personality profile.


Facebook is not committed to protecting its users’ data

Facebook does not make the process of collecting data from its platform particularly difficult. It is essentially an “honour code” with few negative consequences to those that abuse it. Facebook itself uses this type of approach to target ads to users and so refrains from criticising others for doing the same. Facebook has itself experimented with influencing the voting intentions of its users without getting their informed consent.

The simple fact of the matter is that as long as for-profit companies make their money out of advertising, they will try and make that advertising as effective as possible by gathering ever more detailed personal and behavioural information about their users to target ads and make them more effective. Social media and search companies such as Facebook and Google have little incentive other than the risk of government regulation and fines to limit the amount and types of information collected or the ways in which this information is used to target users with ads.

US and European officials are again raising questions about Facebook’s willingness to protect users’ data and to not allow its platform to be abused by governments and private interests to influence political outcomes. Previous attempts to seek answers from Facebook have largely failed, even during official hearings. The threat of fines to change the tech companies’ behaviour is also not completely effective, as company lawyers challenge every action by governments and the fines that companies face are seen as simply a cost of doing business.

The best way to protect yourself from social networks? Leave them

Users of social networks are now being advised about how to protect their data from apps. In 2014, Facebook changed the way applications could access the list of friends for a particular user. After the change, apps could only get information about the friends of a user if they themselves were using the app.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated that Facebook will reduce the access that applications have to user data even further in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, this will still not stop those determined to harvest user data from doing so. If the list of a user’s Facebook friends is set to public, it is possible to simply use a program to “scrape” the data without using a direct programming interface. A simple search on Google reveals many applications and scripts that will do this.

Even changing Facebook’s privacy settings to keep your list of friends private does not necessarily stop anyone from knowing things about you. Anything that is available publically through the profile of one of your friends may include information about you. Also, making information private does not stop Facebook from using it even though the company claims that you can control this. It only applies to information obtained from outside of Facebook, and the firm can still exploit user information to target ads and for any other purpose it chooses.

And while users can block Facebook ads by using extensions such as F.B. Purity, this simply means giving yet another company access to your personal data.

In the end, the only way we have to limit the use of our personal data by social media is to avoid joining the platforms in the first place. This means not having an account at all, because setting up a profile and logging in even once leaves the ability to be tracked when visiting other sites. And if you’re already on Facebook, the best way to protect your personal data is to delete the account completely and permanently. While it may seem like a radical solution, it’s the only truly effective one.

This article was originally published in French

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 184,400 academics and researchers from 4,972 institutions.

Register now