By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif*
The revelation that Facebook allowed a British data company to harvest the personal information of no fewer than 50 million users, which it may have used to influence voters in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum, has reverberated around the world. This was not only a clear breach of privacy, but also troubling evidence that democratic processes can be affected, if not managed, through data released by such platforms.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, once described Facebook as the “most appalling spy machine” in history. One can appreciate this statement in light of the fact that Facebook now has more than 2.2 billion monthly active users around the globe.
Facebook has apologized to users and vowed to protect their personal information in the future. And despite calls, mostly in the West, to boycott the platform, it is hard to believe that Facebook will collapse or disappear as a result of this scandal. There have been other reports alleging that Facebook has been tracking users’ cell phones, including monitoring their call and browsing history. It is fair to say that such violations of privacy are not limited to Facebook. Other platforms and applications track, save and sell users’ information. How such information is used is an open question, but we now know that Facebook users’ profiles were accessed by Cambridge Analytica, a company working for Donald Trump’s election campaign back in 2016.
The latest scandal is the tip of the iceberg. For years experts have warned that IT companies such as Google harvest and allow access to users’ personal information. The privacy issue is important but the fact that these companies are able to personalize what we see on the internet in terms of news, views and even advertising is a serious problem. With the fake news factor in play in recent years, one can imagine how such platforms are able to shape and influence public opinion. We are just learning about Russia’s role in influencing the US presidential election through fake accounts that disseminated either false news or biased information. The British government is now investigating the role Cambridge Analytica may have played in influencing the Brexit referendum.
One cannot rule out the possibility that governments may be accessing citizens’ personal data as well — this is a Big Brother scenario that is entirely possible in this day and age. Our digital trail is impossible to delete and technology has allowed governments and organizations to harvest and catalogue personal information belonging to tens of millions of people.
But what should worry democratic governments around the world is the fact that such breaches of trust by social media platforms can lead to a vile attack on democracy. Fake news is only part of the challenge. The ability of foreign governments to access such personal information and influence voters, as in the case of Britain, France and the US, is another form of cyber warfare. And while laws and regulations will certainly be tightened by Western governments to criminalize such breaches and manipulations, one must ask what we in the Arab world are doing about it?
It is important to point out that the Facebook case is the latest in a series of challenges and risks that users face as they venture into the virtual space. Governments, like individual users, are also at risk of losing control of state secrets and other sensitive data. It is fair to ask if governments in this part of the world have a strategy or plan to protect themselves from hackers that could include unfriendly states.
With almost every activity of our lives going digital, one can only wonder how personal data is stored and protected. Whether access is allowed, as in the case of Facebook, or hacked, it is now a fact that sinister powers can and will abuse personal data.
Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that reaction to the Facebook scandal was muted in our region. Users appear to be willing to remain hooked to social media platforms no matter the risk. One can only assume that such addiction has to do with political reality in most Arab countries: The less freedom of expression there is in the real world, the higher the addiction to Facebook and Twitter. Those platforms offer people the chance to express themselves in the virtual space in stark contrast to existing political conditions. And, as traditional media becomes more restricted, people will flock to social media, where they feel free to have their say. That does not mean that people will not be held accountable for opinions and views expressed online. As we have seen, governments are enacting laws to restrict freedom of expression on the internet through cybercrime laws.
Lessons from the Facebook incident must be learned by individuals, governments and organizations alike. The digital age has changed our lives in many ways, but what seems like a luxury or even a right can also become a liability and a challenge.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator in Amman. Twitter: @plato010