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Your online profile

May 2018

The headlines about Cambridge Analytica harvesting information from Facebook back up an old saying: “data is the new oil”; it’s a phrase often credited to the inventor of the Tesco Clubcard, but whoever said it, they had a point.  There are parallels:  in oil’s early days a cartel of a few giant oil companies had to be broken up.  Nowadays, five giant data companies are the five most valuable listed firms in the world. 

This time, however, breaking them up won’t work, as one of them would quickly become dominant again.  Data is a numbers game.  The more users you have, the better you can refine what you do and so the more users you attract.  It’s inescapable.

Almost every electronic activity leaves a trace, and these traces are the minerals that the modern-day prospectors are digging out of the ground and selling.  It is said that if the online service you are using is free (Facebook, Twitter, Google) then it’s you that is the product they are selling.  So, if data really is the new oil, it is us users who are creating it.

Information about you is gathered in several ways.  Believe it or not, old fashioned theft (often euphemised as “data breach”) is not as big a concern as you might think; stolen data quantities are modest compared with the amount of data collected legitimately.

It is gathered in three legal, or probably legal, ways.  First is the information that we meekly provide if asked.  Have you ever completed a survey on Twitter or Facebook, or on a website? Maybe just two questions: do you travel? Or drink wine? Or perhaps you have left a review of a product somewhere. If you have, someone immediately knows more about you; every fact you volunteer makes your profile more valuable.  Do you have any idea whether the terms and conditions of the website allow them to use such data commercially?  Of course you don’t.  Neither do I.

Second, there is data that we provide without even being asked. Almost all your posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or reviews on TripAdvisor are public.  Every email you send is open to your email service, and every site you visit is recorded by your ISP.  It’s all safely gathered in, ready for refining, just like oil.

Third, there is the slightly difficult area of screen scraping.  This is when a third party (it could be anyone) uses their computer to scan your online comments (Facebook, Twitter et al) and note it all down.  This becomes a growing and ever more accurate picture of what makes you tick, and you don’t even know it’s happening. 

There is some debate as to how legal this scraping is.  It has its uses; shopping comparison sites, for example, use screen scraping to find the cheapest deals, and do it much faster than you can.  Some argue that you put it out there – why shouldn’t someone else read and use it?

Others claim it is a step too far, and that even though you did announce your engagement on Facebook it the information was not for commercial use.  Using it might be a copyright issue, or some other breach, but it’s a very grey and rather untested area. 

So, what to do?  As it happens, one of the final laws the EU will foist on us will be the introduction, on 25th May, of the General Data Protection Regulation; this imposes much stricter rules for obtaining our consent to keep and use personal information and threatens gigantic fines if the regulation ‚Äčis breached.  However, the GDPR will need enforcing, and our regulator (the Information Commissioner) doesn’t have the wherewithal. She is woefully underfunded with a budget of £25m, compared to the Financial regulator’s £500m plus.

I have only one piece of advice to offer: act as sensibly online as you do offline and the odds are you will be fine.  I hope.

Find out what Facebook has on you


If you have a Facebook account, you can find out how much they know about you; it’s a lot.  Every post, photo uploaded, message sent, item clicked on and more.

In the Facebook website, click the downward facing triangle in the top right corner of the screen, and then select the “Settings” option. You can also just go directly from here

Click the “Download a Copy of Your Facebook Data” link at the bottom of the General Account Settings page.

Next, click the green “Start My Archive” button.

Type your password when asked, and you’ll be told that it will take Facebook a few minutes to gather your data. It may take quite a while, but Facebook will email you when your archive is ready for downloading.  It will be very revealing, I promise.