By Mark Richards

Last week’s admission from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made many people wonder what the personal data they divulge online is being used for. Are there any steps we can take to protect our data and to take back control?

It has not been a good week for Facebook. Caught up in the controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of personal data, the company is now facing an investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission, who want to know why Facebook allowed the analysis firm to scoop up data on 50m users.

The FTC will examine whether Facebook failed to protect its users’ privacy: if found guilty, the company could face fines running into billions of dollars, so small wonder that the news sent the shares tumbling on the New York stock exchange, as $58bn was wiped off the company’s valuation.

So there are a few problems for boss Mark Zuckerberg to sort out. But this is not the first time customers’ data has been used for the wrong purposes and it will not be the last. Maybe it is time we took control of our own data…

We have all gone on a new website, or downloaded an update, and had to check the box. You must agree to our terms and conditions before you proceed. Well, you think, I need to use the website so I will have to agree. And I do not have four days to read the T’s & C’s…

But ticking the T’s and C’s is the price we pay for using the internet. It is not free: the personal data we give up is the price we pay for what appears to be free.

“Data is the new oil”

This has become one of those quotations that everyone lays claim to. The term seems to have been originally coined in 2006 by Clive Humby, a UK mathematician and the architect of the Tesco Clubcard. “Data is the new oil,” he said.

“It’s valuable, but if it’s not refined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed … to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity. So data must be broken down and analysed for it to have value.”

Saying that in 2006 Clive Humby could scarcely have dreamed of the strides Artificial Intelligence would make over the next 12 years – or that the tiny company that had been founded two years previously would go on to have – as of January 2018 – 2.2bn active users. That is an awful lot of data to break down and analyse.

…But increasingly, people do not want their data analysed

Like a quarter of the people on the planet, I use Facebook every day. Largely, I use it for two groups – one of them mainly populated by freelance writers. Yesterday’s discussion in the group was simple: ‘were we less likely to use Facebook following last week’s revelations?’ Around half the group said ‘yes:’ everyone was uneasy – and anecdotally, that seems to be the prevailing mood at the moment. People are waking up to the fact that they are paying a price for Google search and, increasingly, they are questioning whether that price is worth paying. So how can we take back control of our data?

Use tools to help us

There is a growing list of apps and tools that will help you manage your data and digital footprint – and which will let you decide what data you share. Over the Easter weekend take a look at Hub of All Things, Digi.Me and Meeco: in the future, the new oil may not be flowing all one way.

Taking Back Control of your Personal Data after Facebook Fallout

Accept that money might be involved

I use any number of web tools to help with my business: one to manage social media, one to distribute copies of my books, another to keep my website free from spam. All these have a small monthly cost: would I pay a small monthly fee (say around $5 or about £3.50) to use a web browser that guaranteed not to track me? Yes, I would: not because I have anything to hide, but simply because looking at jackets on Google and then having men’s jackets stalking me around the internet for two days makes me feel vaguely uneasy. A search engine that already promises to do this – but makes its money from ads – is DuckDuckGo. But if we want to protect our data in the future, we may need to recognise that nothing is for free.

There is power in numbers

Big numbers work both ways: big numbers of users generate lots of data which enable retailers like Amazon to use their algorithm to predict what we might want to buy with increasing accuracy. But users can also come together to control their data, with sites like starting to offer people control over their health data and – hopefully – giving patients collective influence through pooling and sharing their data, but only with specific safeguards.

Or we could rely on the government…

On May 25th – so in just under two months – GDPR will become law. It stands for General Data Protection Regulation and is an EU directive addressing the export of personal data outside the EU. It is intended to give control of their personal data back to people and will be enforceable with fairly draconian fines levied on companies and organisations that break the rules. It is a year tomorrow until the UK leaves the EU, but GDPR will remain a part of UK law.

So that is fine. We do not need to worry and we can rely on the government to protect our data. Somehow, given the records of all governments, I doubt that. The next wholescale data breach is as certain as the next widespread cyber-attack.

With internet users becoming increasingly uneasy about who is using their data and what for, sites and apps offering us protection are going to proliferate. I do not for one minute pretend to understand the technology behind Blockchain and Bitcoin – but I do know that it could be used to build new foundations for sharing personal data on the internet.

‘Watch this space’ might be the answer. For now, I am prepared to accept a certain loss of privacy as the price I pay for the internet. Like many creative professionals, my business is wholly dependent on the internet: I do not like the loss of privacy, but I like the thought of bankruptcy even less. But like millions of other people, I am at the stage where one more major data breach might make me change my mind. You have been warned, Facebook…