Cyber LegalityPersonal SecuritySecurity Culture

Social Media and Other Cool Apps: There’s Still No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

It seems every week investigations are being made into the data collection and sharing practices of social media companies. One of the latest to launch is an Italian investigation of Facebook which is, among other things, looking at whether or not Facebook “exercised undue influence on registered consumers, who, in exchange for using Facebook, would consent to the collection and use of all information concerning them (information from their FB profile, those deriving from the use of FB and from their experiences on third-party sites and apps ), in an unconscious and automatic way, through a system of pre-selection of the consent and maintaining the status quo to avoid any limitations in the use of the service in case of deselecting.”

Let us stop and think about this for a moment. These concerns are not just related to Facebook but are common with a lot of social media platforms. Users share data freely, letting social apps have an enviable level of access to personal information. This would provoke serious concerns were it to be asked by organizations like government or police. However, users show an almost charming naivety when granting permission to these platforms.

Getting back to the Facebook example, investment guide website the Motley Fool reported in 2017 that Facebook expected capital spending to grow by at least 55 percent in 2017, i.e., from $4.5 billion to around $7 to $7.5 billion.

Seven billion dollars is a lot of money, especially for an app that is free. Also, bear in mind that the amount is only the capital investment and not the annual turnover. The website further reports on Facebook’s year-on-year investment as:

  • 2013: $1.4 billion
  • 2014: $1.8 billion
  • 2015: $2.5 billion
  • 2016: $4.5 billion
  • 2017: $7 – $7.5 billion (TBD)

 What is the point here, you ask?

For a company that does not charge users, it is surprising that Facebook has multi-billion-dollar capital investments. With that amount, it can also take care of the operating costs, dividends, profits, taxes, and all the other outgoings that make up the life of a major technology enterprise.

The answer, of course, is at the back end—premium services (e.g. LinkedIn), advertising revenue, and access to data. Advertising is an extremely competitive field where advertisers put a lot of time and effort into maximizing the effectiveness of the money they spend. So, if a media channel can offer a more targeted and better-profiled audience, they can attract a greater share of advertisers’ business as well as charge a premium rate. Venture capital or other equity investments are made only on the expectation of a return on that investment.

The bottom line here is that ‘’free’’ does not mean ‘’without cost.’’ Although from an end user’s perspective no money changes hands, you should not expect a multi-billion-dollar investment to be made on purely altruistic grounds.

I am not suggesting that social media sites or free apps are bad. Depending on the app and the context it is being used for, it can be fun, useful, convenient, productive, or entertaining.

I do, however, try to pay attention to some key things. I encourage you to do the same, irrespective of the app in question being used for work or leisure.

  • Check the permissions granted, especially to external environments, such as a Google or Apple account.
  • Check the security or privacy settings for your apps regularly. New items often appear when terms and conditions updates are announced. This may need resetting to meet your preferences or needs.
  • Check the reputation not only of the app, but any third-party plug-in, game, or tool presented within it. A lot of third-party offerings have supplemental click-through agreements and, as ever, the devil is in the detail. If in doubt, do not allow.
  • For corporate use, check that the use of an external app does not contradict corporate or contractual obligations around data privacy, records management, confidentiality, or other related governance areas.
  • Think twice about the convenience of ‘’Login with XXX’’ offers on third-party websites. Analyze the implications that use might have on your privacy.
  • Get into the habit of regularly checking your online resources. Change passwords periodically. Use strong passwords or, better still, stronger authentication mechanisms. Declutter file storage.
  • Stop and think whether the item you are about to post or upload is appropriate for the target environment.

(Image sourced via XKCD)

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