March 20, 2018

The Facebook "data breach that wasn't a data breach": Data of 50 million users was "legitimately" collected from users, and was then used in ways it wasn't supposed to be used. Government calls for regulation. European governments are already implementing data privacy controls. Are we now on the verge of a new age of privacy and control of our online presence?

For the longest time, privacy experts have been warning us about the fact that we, as ordinary people, have been compromising our privacy by giving control of our data to external parties, recently most notably to social networks, and most notably of those, Facebook. Many times giving these warnings turns out to be somewhat futile, however, because often it comes to appear that people do not care about their privacy. We would acknowledge and understand the warnings, yes.. And then continue as before. I'm sure most of us can relate.

However, recent developments in this space have now suddenly started to paint a somewhat different picture. There was a "data breach that was not a data breach" on Facebook, where data of 50 million users was "legitimately" collected from Facebook users, and was then submitted forward and was used for things that it wasn't supposed to be used for. For many of us, this is not news. We knew that this is how it works, and this is precisely what we've been warning people about. But suddenly, it seems, perhaps the time is finally ripe for us to now collectively understand and appreciate this. And this tells me that we just might be on the verge of a great change in how things work in this world.

The issue with Facebook has escalated tremendously, and in a very short time. Beyond the actual issue, it has been noted that Facebook doesn't seem to know how to handle this, and the fact that Zuckerberg and Sandberg (the CEO and COO of Facebook) are not tackling the issue, but are instead remaining silent and, indeed do not engage. This has further been interpreted, perhaps validly so, as a breakdown or complete lack of leadership from the leaders of Facebook, escalating ever further to suggestions for Zuckerberg to step down and analysis on how Sandberg would be a much better leader anyway. And as this continues, the FB leaders continue to stay silent, further escalating this to headlines that say "Facebook failing" and "existential crisis for Facebook". It escalates even further when we hear that Facebook executives, particularly Zuckerberg, seem to be selling their shares and that the Facebook share price is obviously falling through the floor while all this is happening.

While it might be a little bit too much to conclusively declare that "Facebook is failing" because of this, more cautiously I can confidently say that something very notable is happening. And as many commentators have well pointed out, these are all symptoms of a deep underlying problem (which we all knew and have been warning about), where we as users have given up our privacy to these corporations (not only Facebook) that collect and sell our data, and it gets used for things that we did not authorize, and would not accept if ever we had been asked.

Previously we didn't seem to care. It now seems that we have perhaps started caring. And as we care, this will cause tremendous shifts to the global tech industry as a whole.

Meanwhile in Europe, the continued implementation of GDPR (general data protection regulation) is directing all companies to take concrete steps into protecting the private data of their users, and also to give those users control of their own data. As the United States is apparently starting to follow on a similar path, there are now talks of "regulation" when it comes to Facebook in particular, and social media in general.

The awakening in this space directs us as an industry to appreciate and guard the privacy of individuals, and to allow individuals control of their own data. As this happens, the business models that have been governing the tech business for more than a decade, will come under pressure, and will ultimately need to change. For the longest time, tech companies have in fact been advertising companies. Precisely because the companies have been able to collect and process data about their users that can be sold. As the current developments progress, this can perhaps no longer continue to be the case, and alternative business models will need to be developed. Who knows, perhaps tech companies will actually return to the technology business again? :)

As ordinary people and users of technology, it is ultimately our choice what kind of service we require and demand of those who we choose to deal with. Do you care about your privacy and control of your own private information? If so, let's encourage and nurture the developments that are now underway. As users, let's demand for privacy, and as technology professionals and technology companies, let's provide services that respect the privacy of users. This is also something that requires concessions from us, most typically as users we may need to actually pay money for a service that we are currently used to getting without payment. It was never free, until now we were just giving away our privacy in exchange for the service. In the new world, we may need to pay for it in some other way, perhaps using actual money. Are we willing?

The GDPR on the European side and similar initiatives in U.S., Asia and other parts of the world, are just the beginning. The Facebook privacy scandal is part of the same beginning. But the future depends on us: If we so choose, we may be standing on the verge of a new era of privacy, control and self-determination.

As users, let's embrace it. And then as developers.. Let's develop it.

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