Column: Where is your personal data going?


Maria Lovato, columnist

Ever since I made my first email account, I have routinely clicked “accept” to online terms and conditions without fully reading them first. While many people do this without question, the Facebook data leak forces us to reconsider how websites and online programs are using our personal data.

Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm that worked for the Trump campaign, gathered private information from millions of Facebook users. The firm then used this data to attempt to identify the personality traits of these individuals and influence their behavior through political advertising. All of this occurred without the Facebook users being notified.

Those of us who have grown up in the internet age do not realize the extent to which the information we are putting out is being consumed. We are accustomed to sharing our lives on the web, from what we eat to when our birthday is to the places we visit. This has been so normalized that it appears harmless. We may not realize the kind of extensive online profile we are building about ourselves. Companies such as Cambridge Analytica realized the power of this data, and decided to capitalize off it.

We also do not fully understand who has access to this content. We are conditioned to think in terms of what our followers will see, not about the company that provides the platform. In reality, social media sites and search engines like Google track and store this information.

While in high school, I was advised about how future employers often look up potential employees online during the application process. This is when I first became conscious of my online presence. Most people have come to realize that the content you put on the Internet can be seen by other individuals, even if they do not directly follow you. But what about private companies? What about the content that you think is secret, like your Google search history or the birthday you have on your Twitter profile?

Oftentimes, we will see ads promoting items we shopped for the day before on a completely unrelated site. This is a perfect example of companies making use of our personal information. Online advertising services, such as Google Ads, use search history to create personalized ads by targeting their advertisements to specific users.

Cambridge Analytica essentially did the same thing on Facebook. They tracked users and used this data to target ads to specific people. The difference is that Cambridge Analytica was using this information to manipulate voters, and the people this was happening to had no idea it was occuring.

If this doesn’t scare you, it should. Sites such as Facebook need to be held accountable for protecting individuals’ privacy. They can start by being transparent about their policies and making it clear to users how their personal data may be used.