The recent data scandal involving the personal data of 87 million Facebook users, including one million Indonesians, has shocked users around the world. The data, which should have been private and confidential, had been exploited by Cambridge Analytica.

The British political consultancy apparently used the personal data of Facebook users to develop profiles of prospective voters. Using big data and psychographics technology, the firm manipulated the data to influence the voting behavior of prospective voters according to their clients’ instructions.

Two notable political campaigns Cambridge Analytica had handled were that of Donald Trump in his 2016 United States presidential campaign and the Vote Leave Brexit campaign. The data leak is believed to have contributed significantly to the victories of both Trump and Brexit.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized publicly and promised to tighten the social media platform’s security system.

Today’s valuable data includes those on aircraft engine conditions, YouTube viewer numbers, gender of train passengers and even the behavior of public toilet users — in short, everything.

The Economist wrote, “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.” The five largest global companies in the world today — Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft — are all technology companies.

The Association of Indonesian Internet Service Providers (APJII) estimates that 143.26 million internet users exist in the country, at or nearly 55 percent of the total population.

Almost 95 percent of these Indonesians use the internet specifically to access Facebook and Twitter. Indonesia has the world’s fourth largest number of Facebook users after the US, Brazil and India. The country also has the fifth largest number of Twitter users after the US, Brazil, Japan and the United Kingdom, and is thus one of the largest data-producing countries in the world.

Facebook alone uses millions of its users’ profiles to profit from its advertising platform. With their sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI), Facebook can create targeted advertising for prospective customers. Its customers — business owners and political candidates — benefit from being able to develop and disseminate information targeted to a Facebook user’s personal profile.

In Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism, Vincent Mosco warns that new media such as social media, search engines and e-commerce have created a new ecosystem that is highly vulnerable to manipulation and crime.

The alleged crime involving Cambridge Analytica concerns privacy violations that have occurred in obtaining social media users’ personal data. The most common mode of obtaining leaked data is through loopholes in a social media platform’s privacy terms that allow outsiders to access the users’ data through third-party applications.

Cambridge Analytica, for example, obtained users’ data through Facebook’s interface app in an application named ThisIsYourDigitalLife that was developed by Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge. However, according to Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, the more fundamental risk of privacy violations actually stems from the business model of internet-based technology companies.

According to Zuckerman, many online companies today have similar business models. They collect as much of their users’ information as possible: personal information, browsing activities, network of friends, visited places, status and shared photos, number of “Likes” and comments, as well as online shopping activities. In return, these online companies allow users to use their platform or app for free.

As Zuckerman writes, stakeholders in the data economy opt for three measures to prevent the recurrence of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

First, encourage social media companies to change their business model. Social media companies should give their users the choices to: (1) provide full access to their personal data for free services; (2) obtain services for free while providing only partial information; or (3) pay for the services.

Second, encourage social media companies to support more open competition. Large companies such as Facebook must be broken down into small enterprise units to prevent monopolistic practices.

Third, encourage policymakers to draft more stringent anti-monopoly regulations on digital data. The government should ensure that social media companies are willing to share their data, especially with government agencies.

The data economy will continue to grow rapidly, and many more problems could emerge in relation to privacy violation practices on social media.

The scandal is a valuable lesson on how important it is to maintain data privacy in cyberspace. Users’ rights and guaranteed protection should be a major concern for any social media company in Indonesia.

By making efforts to prevent data leaks as early as possible, the data economy ecosystem in Indonesia can develop better and healthier toward the future.

The writer is a lecturer at the Sociology Department of Trunojoyo University, Madura and the author of The Social Dimension of Technology ( 2018 ).

Note: This op-ed article has been published in The Jakarta Post, 16 April 2018.

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