Every now and then Facebook makes the headlines as a big surveillance machine not least due to how the company handles the personal information of its users. Many users are alarmed: some delete their accounts, some read up on the issue, yet others do not take any action at all. Currently, Facebook still counts 2.2bn active users.

Methods of data collection

First off, every Facebook user needs to understand that all the scandals up until now have not been caused by a data leak – the data has been forwarded to the third parties via regular channels. Numerous apps and other service providers obtain user data legally through integration into Facebook or other API implementations. In the case of Cambridge Analytica there was a personality test which provided access to the user data from Facebook and also made it possible for the company to amend the test data.

The main point of criticism is that the users were barely informed about the details of the data transfer. When you dig deeper into the Facebook help pages you will find the following:

„Keep in mind when you install an app, you give it permission to access your public profile, which includes your name, profile pictures, username, user ID (account number), networks and any info you choose to make publicly available. You also give the app other info to personalize your experience, including your friends list, gender, age range and locale.“ 2

However, it is almost impossible to find out what this ‘other info’ actually includes. The linked material is not accessible at this time.
The guidelines for developers of such apps are also rather blurry. Of course, the data transfer is restricted, meaning that the data cannot be sold or passed on to advertising networks and the likes. Facebook’s Developer Guidelines state the following:

„Don’t use a service provider in connection with your use of Platform unless you make them sign a contract to: (a) protect any user data you obtained from us (that is at least as protective as our terms and policies), (b) limit their use of that user data solely to using it on your behalf to provide services to your app (and not for their own purposes or any other purposes), and (c) keep it secure and confidential. You must ensure they comply with our terms and policies (and are responsible for their non-compliance).“  3

„Don’t sell, license, or purchase any data obtained from us or our services.“3

This places the burden of user data protection on the partner almost entirely. The requirement is that the information on privacy protection must be easy to find, and the app maker must state clearly that the Facebook data is being collected. Furthermore, everything needs to remain within the legal boundaries and must fully comply with the Facebook Developer Policy (openly stating the possible misuse of data in the terms and conditions of the app is not permitted). However, according to the whistle blower Sandy Parakilas, there is little to no enforcement of these rules. And the fact that Facebook is currently dealing with many other issues, e.g. fake news, hate speech and spam ads, is not the only reason why this is happening. The main reason is that the data is used outside of Facebook’s sphere of influence:

Sandy Parakilas says:  “Zero. Absolutely none. Once the data left Facebook servers there was not any control, and there was no insight into what was going on.”

What can users do?

Data Facebook

If you do not want to leave Facebook you need to start checking and revising the publicly available information on your Facebook profile. It can be helpful to download your profile information that Facebook has collected and stored in order to get a better insight. Facebook does not provide all the data it has on you, but what you get should be enough to rethink your user behaviour.

Many apps also allow you to log in without a Facebook or Google account which eliminates the possibility of data transfer from your Facebook profile – tracking though a Facebook Pixel does not transfer your public data to the service provider. In case you decide to log into an app or a store with your Facebook account, do take the time to read the privacy policy and the terms and conditions.

Unfortunately, the only way to not participate in the trading of data is to delete your Facebook account together with all of its connected services (Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, Move, etc.) completely. On the other hand, in this age of data collectors like Google, online shops like Amazon, self-optimisation and tracking services on Wearables and tracking of shopping behaviour via customer cards, you have to wonder if deleting your account will help at all.


1 Source: Allfacebook | https://allfacebook.de/toll/state-of-facebook
2 Source: Facebook | https://www.facebook.com/help/1727608884153160/?helpref=hc_fnav
3 Source: Facebook | https://developers.facebook.com/policy/
4 Source: The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/20/facebook-data-cambridge-analytica-sandy-parakilas

Other sources and additional information:

FAQ: Was wir über den Skandal um Facebook und Cambridge Analytica wissen [UPDATE]

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