Technology

Facebook data - do we get what we deserve?

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Media captionDe'Graft was shocked by the data Facebook stored on him

Facebook has been hard to miss this week as it struggles to cope with an unfolding scandal over the way data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica got hold of information about 50 million users.

In the wake of the furore, Facebook has promised to take a tougher line with apps and others who want to mine the mountain of data the social network has stockpiled about its two billion active users.

For some, however, this latest data gathering debacle is the final straw and the hashtag #DeleteFacebook has been trending on Twitter.

Does that mean lots of people have deleted Facebook?

It's hard to tell. The tag was used more than 50,000 times on Tuesday and Wednesday in tweets, reported the New York Times, which suggests it was a popular topic of discussion. But even if every one of those who used the tag, including singer Cher, deleted their account it would not make much difference to the social network's total population.

In an interview, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said he had not seen a "meaningful number" of people leaving the site.

And, as others have pointed out, even if you delete your Facebook data, it will still keep track of you via those friends and acquaintances who keep using the social network.

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Image caption Cher was one of the high-profile users who deleted their Facebook profile

What would stop people using Facebook?

Not mistakes with user data, it seems. In a widely shared story, Josh Constine at news site Tech Crunch detailed the many different ways over the last 10 years that the site had gathered too much data and shared it too widely. Throughout that decade of mis-steps, Facebook grew almost without a hiccup.

Just as in the early days of the web when a lot of people thought that Google was the internet, now many look at it only through a window that Facebook provides.

Despite this, some changes to the age range of Facebook's active users are becoming apparent. The average age of its population is rising because young people are less interested in using it.

They prefer other messaging and social media apps. However, that might not mean they escape it entirely as Facebook owns a couple of services, Instagram and WhatsApp, that are popular with the younger crowd.

So are people getting what they deserve?

It has often been said that "if you are not paying for it, you are not the customer, you are the product" and it is a maxim that could be applied to a lot of websites. Most are free to use, signing up is easy and their terms and conditions can be agreed to with a single click.

All it takes to get the extras is surrendering personal information.

But those websites regularly betray the trust we place in them to safeguard that information, said Frederike Kaltheuner from digital rights group Privacy International.

And, she said, many sites take the basic data and extrapolate from it to learn more about us.

"Any company with enough data about their users behaviour can gain exceptionally sensitive insights into users' lives," she said.

Few people realised that's what they were surrendering every time they used a service and few appreciated that apps and other add-ons for popular sites were trawling for deep personal details, she added.

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Image caption Many people may be deleting Facebook but the site still has more than two billion users

Doesn't our data help sell ads and keep sites free to use?

They do, said Chris Combemale, head of the Direct Marketing Association, and there was no doubt that businesses had prospered by making intelligent use of this information.

But he said firms had to be more transparent about the way they used that data.

"In no way, shape or form, should companies be collecting data on the public without their knowledge, It is not acceptable," he said.

Customer confidence had been "shaken" by this week's revelations and would be only restored if companies showed more clearly what was being done with data they held, he told the BBC.

Steps to restore this trust would include ring-fencing data and stopping the third-party trade in data, said Ofri ben Porat, head of tech firm Pixoneye.

"Privacy is everything," he said. "Without privacy, there is no trust, and without trust there is no respect."

Jim Killock from the Open Rights Group said there were other problems with an online world powered by targeted adverts.

The conviction that more data meant more productive ads had a downside, in that it drove sites to attract traffic at all costs. It meant they encouraged people to over-share, had given rise to "clickbait" and all those annoying adverts that promise far more than they deliver.

In many cases there were better ways to get the right adverts to the right people at the right time, he said

"Targeted ads are a pretty poor model," he said. "They give limited returns and create a race to the bottom."

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