Is it time to unfriend Facebook?

We urgently need to wake to the reality that Facebook has been allowed to hoover up our data unhindered for too long.

The latest revelation that Facebook allowed a British data analytics firm to harvest the personal information of more than 50 million users has reverberated around the world. The information grab, which may have been used to influence voters in the US presidential elections and the Brexit referendum, was not only a clear breach of privacy; there were many previous incidents involving Facebook and other social media outlets, but a troubling evidence that democratic processes can be affected—if not managed—through data released by such platforms.

Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has once described Facebook as the “most appalling spy machine” in history. One can appreciate this statement in light of the fact that Facebook now boasts more than 2.2 billion monthly active users around the globe.

Facebook has apologized to users and vowed to protect their personal information in the future. And despite calls, mostly in the West, to boycott the platform and cancel subscriptions, it is hard to believe that Facebook will collapse or disappear as a result of this scandal.

There have been other reports alleging that Facebook has been tracking users’ cell phones including call and browsing history. It is fair to say that such violation of privacy is not limited to Facebook. Other platforms and applications track, save, and sell users’ information. How such information is used is an open question. But we now know that users’ profiles on Facebook were accessed by Cambridge Analytica; a firm that worked for Donald Trump’s election campaign back in 2016.

For years experts have warned that IT companies, such as Google, harvest and allow access to users’ personal information. The privacy issue is important but the fact that these companies are able to personalize what we see on the Internet in terms of news, views, and even advertising is a serious problem.

With the fake news factor in play in recent years, we are only now realizing just how such platforms are able to shape and influence public opinions. We are just learning about Russia’s alleged role in influencing the US presidential elections through fake accounts that disseminated either false news or biased information. The British government is now investigating the role Cambridge Analytica may have played in influencing the Brexit results.

One cannot rule out the possibility that governments may be accessing citizens’ personal data as well. This is Big Brother scenario that is entirely possible in this day and age. Our digital trail is impossible to delete and technology has allowed governments and organizations to harvest and catalogue personal information belonging to tens of millions of people.

But what should worry democratic governments around the world is the fact that such breach of trust by social media platforms can lead to a vile attack on democracy. Fake news is only part of the challenge. The ability of foreign governments to access such personal information and influence voters, as in the case of Britain, France and the U.S., is another form of cyber warfare. And while laws and regulations will certainly be tightened by western governments to criminalize such breaches and manipulations, one must ask what we in the Arab world are doing about it?

It is important to point out that the Facebook case is the latest in a series of challenges and risks that users face as they venture into the virtual space. Governments, like individual users, are also at risk of losing control of state secrets and other sensitive data. It is fair to ask if governments in this part of the world have a strategy or plan to protect themselves from hackers that could include unfriendly states.

With almost every activity of our lives going digital one can only wonder how personal data is stored and protected. Whether access is allowed, as in the case of Facebook, or hacked, it is now a fact that sinister powers can and will abuse personal data.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that reaction to the Facebook scandal was muted in our region. Users appear to be willing to remain hooked to social media platforms no matter the risk. One can only assume that such addiction has to do with political reality in most Arab countries: The less freedom of expression there is in the real world the higher the addiction to Facebook and Twitter. Those platforms offer people the chance to express themselves in the virtual space in stark contrast to existing political conditions. And as traditional media becomes more restricted, people will flock to social media where they feel free to have their say.