Is our data safe on social media?

10 April 2018

Interview with

Peter Cowley, Angel investor

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Recently the headlines have been awash with stories about how our data are being used or abused by companies. Facebook is currently under fire for sharing up to 87 million users’ data with Cambridge Analytica, which has opened a conversation about personal data and what is and is not acceptable. Georgia Mills spoke to tech guru and angel investor Peter Cowley. First off Georgia asked Peter why our personal data is so valuable to social media companies...

Peter - Well, I’ll give you some figures: last year Facebook actually cost 20 billion dollars to run. Where’s that money coming from? In fact, they made a lot of profit out of that as well. That money is not coming from us as users, it’s coming from advertisers, so the advertisers are paying to put something onto Facebook which we can then consume. The numbers are huge because apparently Facebook’s got over 2 million users and a 100 billion ‘clicks’ per year. It’s only about 50 cents they get for each click but, at the same time, they’ve got to deliver the adverts that the advertiser wants to get to us. On Facebook, although I don’t seem to notice the adverts, 1 in every 5 posts is an advert, unlike on Twitter where it’s 1 in every 10.

Georgia - Right. So where as I might see an add on the train station or something like this, when you’re using our data you can really target it at people who you think might be more likely to buy your product?

Peter - That makes the click or the eyeball worth more.

Georgia - Facebook’s been at the centre of this debate but is it just them storing up lots and lots of personal data?

Peter - Not at all! The data might be different but, of course, Amazon is doing it; they’re suggesting you buy stuff. Google’s definitely doing it with the advertising, Microsoft’s doing it, Apple’s doing it and, on top of that although not in quite the same way, the banks, the Government, the NHS, insurance companies, everybody’s storing data on us.

Georgia - How well do they really know us then?

Peter - They know where we’ve logged in so that they can do some security. If somebody else logs into your Facebook account they’ll tell you etc., or Google, and they know your interests. You can check your preferences where I think we’ve both done. In my case it’s tech, finance, food, films, education but also, for some strange reason, I’m interested in basketball, which I’m clearly not! And, I think we’ll share this, I’m interested in the police; I’m not quite sure why.

Georgia - Yes, that came up on mine too. Facebook has this option where you can go in and see what it thinks you like and that’s how it uses the information to target ads at you. And yes, some of it was pretty straightforward; it knows I like horror films, video games and ukuleles - it know I like them. But it also said I like ‘reality’, which is an interesting one - a bit surreal. Plumbing, simply the word ‘pint’ and the rings of Saturn, which I really enjoyed. I think that might have something to do with my job as a science producer. Oh yeah, and’ play doh’ as well, so I don’t know how it got that idea.

Peter - It was nothing like as specific for me but because my tastes are somewhat different, I suspect. There’s a saying that we are the product of the tech giants, not customers of theirs. The customers are the advertisers and we’re the product, and they’re selling us which actually, if you look at it, is correct. But it’s not just the tech giants who are doing that because pay TV channels are, magazines, newspapers. They're selling the facts and what’s advertised so that’s what's advertised say in the Financial Times would be different from what’s advertised in the Sun, so it’s not just the tech giants doing it. It’s a way of targeting advertising.

Georgia - When this story broke there seemed to be quite a lot of surprise but as someone who works in the tech industry, what would your thoughts; were you surprised by this development?

Peter - I was surprised that Facebook had allowed the data to be harvested in that way. And, in fact, although it’s not quite an apology I don’t think, Zuckerberg did mention that and it has put some new rules in place to hopefully ensure, we’ll wait and see whether it works, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. I suspect that’s really difficult to police though.

Georgia - There’s questions of overturning democracy and things like that being being thrown around, but on a person level is it necessary a bad thing to have your data used like this?

Peter - It depends how it’s used. It depends on whether you trust the person that’s used and whether the people who are using the data are respecting your data. There will be good things and this as been covered on the programme before, our medical data sufficiently anonymised should end up with us having more specific treatment, or even specific drugs if necessary. Because medical treatment is a statistical chance of something happening based on your age, your sex, your location, etc., so that data will be very powerful.

But there’s a lot of things that could be connected with ‘big brother.’ The one that people talk about is if the insurance company detects you’re going to the doctor more, therefore your health insurance might go up. So yes and no; very specific to the data.

Georgia - What can an individual do about this?

Peter - Well, the extreme is to go completely off the grid so to only the old fashioned feature phones, not to have a smartphone, not to have an email address and everything but modern life doesn’t allow that. How do you buy a plane ticket if you’re completely off grid? The government's putting more and more services online like renewing your car tax.

The next thing is to come of social network of course, and I think a lot of people probably have done that. But there are advantages in doing that as well in terms of keeping in touch. What you should do, definitely, is regularly check your privacy setting on any of these, which you can do, they do allow that. Whether they give enough privacy setting, I don’t know.

There’s a new EU law coming in next month called the General Data Protection Regulations, which is pushing some of this responsibility onto the companies.

Georgia - Do you think the conversation that are being had now will lead to genuine change in the tech industry and in social media groups?

Peter - Absolutely! There are four stakeholders here: the users i.e. us, the advertisers, the platforms like Facebook etc., the regulatory governments, and there’s a lot going on. My crystal ball isn’t good enough to tell you what it’s going to be like in five years time, but there is change happening.

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