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GDPR Looms Large Over Facebook by Dan Sherratt

With the rapidly advancing approach of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the social media giant is facing some serious concerns.

Following research by the Charles III University in Madrid, Facebook is in danger of breaching the soon to be implemented new rules. The company holds data – race, sexual, political, religious – of 72% of its users from within the EU, which amounts to more than 200 million people! The research suggests that they could struggle to adjust to the new rules, and this could strike a huge blow to the Facebook advertising empire.

Analysts at Citi said that under GDPR users must give specific and unambiguous consent to any companies who want to store and use their personal data, and that Facebook haven’t shown how they are preparing to address this. For their part, Facebook have said that their advertising is based on “topics [they] think people might be interested in, but without using sensitive personal data,” which sounds like it could be a solution to the concerns raised by the Spanish academics.

However, recent revelations by former Facebook Product Manager Antonio Garcia Martinez have given a concerning insight into an Orwellian darkside to the Facebook advertising machine.

Martinez’s revelations fire shots towards how Facebook’s advertising algorithms could have been used by political parties to sway both the 2016 US Election and the Brexit referendum, however I will give politics a wide berth and focus on his claims about Facebook’s “Custom Audiences” and “Lookalike Audiences.” Fairly innocuous names to distract from what could be deemed some shady practices. Customer Audiences takes the data Facebook already has on you, and scours the online and real world for additional information – loyalty cards, membership fees paid, direct mail companies, surveys – and uploads it to the Facebook advertising machines where it is matched to your profile and, like magic, Facebook has created a profile of you which joins your Facebook life with your non-Facebook life.

Advertisers and commercial companies then pay Facebook a King’s ransom for this data which gives them to ability to target people on a range of data which can go beyond the obvious of age, location etc. and start digging into your interests, hobbies, and plans you’ve been making.

This then leads onto their Lookalike Audiences which takes this data they have on you and uses complex algorithms to expand this target group to other like-minded people who have shown similar characteristics.

The Spanish research and the broadside coming from Martinez’s sailboat paint a picture not of a friendly cutting-edge tech giant, but of a Thought Police-esque profiling company scraping data on you from all sources to create “Audiences” and then selling these to anyone paying the going rate – car dealerships, detergent companies, political parties… Can Facebook make the necessary course corrections to swerve a clash with GDPR is an immediate concern for them but, as their clandestine profiling of their users is dragged further into the light, can Zuckerberg and his gang re-establish their image of a  company designed to put you in touch with people?