Why can't we stop talking about Facebook? We explore why social has become our window to privacy issues, and what this means for Australia's data-driven near-future.

Why can’t we stop talking about Facebook? We explore why social has become our window to privacy issues, and what this means for Australia’s data-driven near-future. Image: Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 developer conference  ©Brian Solis

The advent of social media has caused a very significant shift in how we use digital communication tools. Companies like Facebook create an environment that is filled with words, videos and images from friends we’ve known for decades, and use their platform to create new connections, facilitate events, raise money for charities and amplify the voices of individuals and groups. Platforms that serve as tools for social connection are heavily subscribed to among young Australians, and as a consequence, the issues they raise will be significant among current and new data-driven services in Australia, over the next few decades.

Why social is in the news

The usefulness of social media platforms has raised a new tension – often, a large trove of deeply personal information is attached to our identity. This is information we consciously volunteer, by filling in details and typing out posts, but it’s also behavioural information collected during our time on the platforms, such as comments we type but never post, or how long we linger on the page of a friend.

Facebook’s revenue model has relied on selling access to insights derived from behavioural patterns. With the hope of achieving greater impact than broad-sweeping advertising (such as television and print media). It’s brought significant growth to the company.

It’s through these platforms, and revenue models that are closely linked to the identity, habits and personality traits of their users, that most citizens are connecting with the tension between the usefulness of data about people, and the importance of closed access to our identities. According to Adrian Turner, CEO of our Data61 team, data privacy will become a valuable resource in an age of ever-increasing data usage. “The Facebooks of the world will become so large and integral that there really does need to be some checks and balances,” he says. “They [need to] treat data in an ethical way, and in a transparent way.”

In early 2018, a scandal relating to the mis-use of data collected through third-party Facebook applications broken, involving a company called Cambridge Analytica. Though the story was new, it spoke to the pre-existing tension between the collection and utilisation of personal information, and the awareness of the people to whom that information relates. That social media is the primary nexus for contemporary discussion around privacy is a sure sign of the centrality of these platforms in a modern, data-driven world.

Another layer of complication introduced by the dominance of social media is the involvement of third parties. Data brokers, for instance, can sell a database of information about customers that can then be linked to a collection of Facebook profiles, such that advertising can be targeted to those individuals.

The science of privacy

Can you have social media accounts and be safe online?

There’s an expanding body of scientific investigation that relates to examining how information about the users of massive social platforms spreads well beyond what those users might consider acceptable. Data61’s Dali Kaafar, Group Leader of Data61’s Information Security and Privacy Group, published a paper in 2014 that found a collection of Facebook apps that suck up information and provide this to third parties.

Dali has also published research examining how inferences can be drawn about our personalities from a surprisingly small packet of data about our behaviour on Facebook. Specifically, our ‘likes’. “I do use Facebook, but I don’t use it that often,” Dali told CSIROscope. “I visit Facebook once a week, but I also don’t provide too much information. I pay attention to things that might be perceived as seemingly harmless information – our ‘likes’ are a particularly powerful signal that can be used to draw private inferences about us”. In conjunction with this investigation, Data61 works to create solutions that resolve these problems.

Though privacy preserving technologies aren’t always specifically targeted at social media, the challenges they address are broad across any industry relying heavily on data that relates to human identity and experience. Another simultaneous challenge is the communication of privacy issues to users who may be unfamiliar with the technicalities of data collection, data analysis and the nuances of anonymisation.

The challenge of collecting large quantities of information and selling access to it are varied, and are certainly not limited to the world of social media. But these networks are heavily subscribed to by young Australians, and as such, the privacy issues they raise take on a special significance in the context of the upcoming decades. Our relationship with privacy, data, identity and security will bear a close connection with how broad changes to data usage across industries take shape during a period of significant change.

The prospect of regulation and legislation that targets the use of data, in the context of consumer protections around privacy, has caused a shift in attention and attitude among data-driven industries. New innovations may emerge, such as distributed social media platforms and data that remains on your device instead of in the cloud, that address these challenges. Data61 will be involved in a review of Open Banking and the establishment of a Consumer Data Right . These changes will affect the banking, finance, telecommunications and energy sectors.

Social media has been the canary in the data-mine for broad shifts and the re-balancing of consumer rights. There’s little doubt these shifts will continue over the coming decades.

Originally published in Data61’s newsletter, Algorithm.

Data61’s expertise in data science necessitates a close understanding of issues around privacy - the protection of information about individuals or groups to which access must be restricted or carefully controlled.