Recent Scandals Highlight Social Media Security

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Recent Scandals Highlight Social Media Security

Illustration by Britany Rodriguez

Illustration by Britany Rodriguez

Illustration by Britany Rodriguez

Lauren Cincotta, News Editor

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Social media is a useful tool for staying connected with friends and sharing interests with others. Part of what makes these sites catered to the interest of the individual using them, is the large amount of personal information that companies collect and store. Platforms such as Facebook collect and store user information such as birthdays, preferences, and friends. As more people with social media accounts turn to the internet to document their lives, more personal information is being compromised in large scale data breaches. Facebook, one leading social media platform suffered a massive data breach as recently as September of this year. This came months after Facebook executive Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress when the Cambridge Analytica scandal shook user confidence in the security of their personal information in the hands of Facebook. 

Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that was hired by President Trump’s campaign, was able to access to the personal information of Facebook users affected by this scandal. This information was collected and stored by Cambridge Analytica to create profiles on American voters in the 2016 election. The users affected were reassured by Facebook that usernames and passwords were not harvested but other pieces of sensitive information, like location and preferences were affected. This data was later used to compile information and try to sway voters. There are no laws in place to protect users in this situation. Individuals with Facebook accounts can have their data accessed by research firms like Cambridge Analytica, based on the Terms of Use. This only applies to research or other academic purposes and does not apply to firms who sell data for money. Facebook has been criticized for how top executives handled new information about the scandal as it was made available to the company. 

Social media companies make money from running advertisements based on the personal interests of users. This is the most obvious example of personal data being used by social media companies. Advertisers pay large amounts of money to companies to run ads that cater to the specific likes of individuals. In addition, many third party platforms such as Netflix and Spotify allow users to log into their accounts using Facebook. With recent investigations into election meddling by foreign governments, evidence is mounting that Facebook users could have been influenced by ads placed by groups looking to tamper with the election process.

  Upon reviewing testimony from CEO Mark Zuckerberg lawmakers began to push for more action by Facebook to protect the personal information of the people that use the site. This manifested itself in the creation of the View As feature, designed to give people a clear idea about how others view their information. This feature was exploited in the latest data breach. In September, hackers used software weaknesses in the View As feature to take over victims accounts and learn usernames and passwords, not only for Facebook but other social media apps and websites that allow users to login with their Facebook accounts.

  These and other notable breaches have raised questions about possible legislation that could be introduced to protect the privacy of social media users. Any legislation that would be introduced would likely not only impact Facebook, but other social media companies as well. Instagram and Snapchat also run ads with features similar to Facebook. No matter the name, most apps follow a similar model. They are free to use and collect information about likes/dislikes/preferences etc. to use for targeted advertisements. 

Some apps also link to other accounts which would expose usernames and passwords in a potential breach. Software weaknesses on any platform are often exploited by hackers looking to gain access to sensitive information. This information is used in many different ways, to create fake accounts on other sites, access financial information, or create data profiles on users. This can happen on any platform. Recently, a software bug in an Instagram feature that allowed users to download their data, compromised passwords from an unknown number of accounts. 

Anyone that uses social media should be mindful of the fact that breaches are occurring more frequently and until new laws are introduced to protect the privacy of users their information is being used and their data is at risk. When users agree to create accounts on any social media site, there are terms and conditions that they must agree to in order to proceed with creating the account. Often, these are not read or not fully understood by the user. These terms and conditions mean different things with different companies but people looking to connect on social media should realize that by signing up, they part with a considerable amount of privacy and security.