Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced Congress for over ten hours of hearings. The focus was on the privacy of users on social media in the wake of the company’s data sharing scandal with Cambridge Analytica.  Many lawmakers also grilled the CEO about the potential for new legislative regulation, Facebook’s role in the 2016 election, and its monopolistic characteristics.

One amusing thing that I took away from last week’s hearings was the incompetence of our government— although that was no surprise. While there were some Congressmen and Senators that asked thoughtful and substantive questions, many were obviously clueless about the issue at hand. Others were simply looking for soundbites to enhance their public image for their constituents.

Here are some of my favorite exchanges:

1.  Sen. Orrin Hatch: "How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?"

Zuckerberg: “"Senator, we run ads.”

2.  Sen. Blunt: “My son Charlie, who’s 13, is dedicated to Instagram so he’d want to be sure I mentioned him while I was here with you.”

3.  Sen. Nelson: “Yesterday when we talked, I gave the relatively harmless example that I’m communicating with my friends on Facebook and indicate that I love a certain kind of chocolate. And all of a sudden I start receiving advertisements for chocolate. What if I don’t want to receive those commercial advertisements?”

The question of government incompetence should be reserved for a different column. The pressing issue here is the massive power and influence that social media sites have on our lives. Do Facebook and its competitors have an obligation to be more transparent?

Since its inception in Zuckerberg’s college dorm at Harvard in 2004, Facebook has become a behemoth of a company, with a net income of approximately 16 billion dollars last year. As of the fourth quarter of 2017, Facebook had around 2.2 billion active users. To put this number in perspective, that’s roughly 30 percent of the world’s population.

As you can tell through the numbers, Facebook’s pitch to advertisers is simple. With that many users, advertisers lick their chops for personal data to run more targeted and personalized campaigns. In fact, a little over 98 percent of its revenue comes from digital advertisements.

Specifically, advertisers may be inclined to take advantage of Facebook’s algorithmically-based news feeds that can be used to induce moods and coerce people into buying their products. Advertisers have always tried to exploit our psychological tendencies. However, the potential to do so at such an individualized level never existed. Social media platforms have allowed them to target people privately based on personal traits and vulnerabilities.

Consumer data companies sell consumer information around the world and provide marketers specific details that range from income to sexual orientation to the cars you drive. There is no reason why social media platforms can’t participate in this practice to generate more revenue for their businesses. Social media platforms have immense power not only to influence everyday lives, but also to harness massive amounts of data that can be quite revealing about who we are.

In fact, Zeynep Tufecki of UNC’s Department of Sociology who specializes in topics of this nature, recited a study in which “using only ‘Facebook Likes’… researchers were able to fairly reliably ‘model’ (computationally and statistically guess to a high degree of accuracy) ‘latent’ traits of 58,000 volunteers.” The traits modeled—often with eighty to ninety percent accuracy—included "sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender" among others.

The implications of big data are directly related to privacy, surveillance and civil liberties, especially when this data is aggregated from substantial numbers of sources. Developments in computational processes that have grown alongside big data now allow inferences about private information that may never have been disclosed explicitly to an online platform.

As we look for solutions to this issue, it is a positive sign that a portion of the public is aware of algorithmic practices conducted by search engines and social media platforms. A Pew Research Center study from 2012 found that internet users are anxious about the collection of personal information by search engines and other websites.

Specifically, 73 percent of those surveyed said they would not be okay “with a search engine keeping track of your searches and using that information to personalize your future search results because you feel it is an invasion of privacy.”  When asked about personalized advertising, 68 percent responded that they are not okay “with targeted advertising because [they] don’t like having my online behavior tracked and analyzed.”

However, 40 percent of users have not even noticed targeted advertising. Even worse, a major  problem is that many people are not aware of methods that could be used to limit the data that is collected about them from algorithms. The Pew Study revealed that this amounts to roughly 62 percent of users.

If internet users who use search engines and social media platforms such as Google and Facebook respectively view algorithmic data collection as a threat to their privacy, there are few—but immediate ways they can help themselves without waiting for government regulation or a court ruling. One method is to delete web history as often as possible. This practice limits what data can be used for personalization. Another method is using the privacy settings of websites to directly control what is captured. One can also achieve this by altering browser settings.

MONEY magazine, which is produced by Time Inc., analyzed a study conducted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about the data broker industry. The article came up with seven ways to improve individual consumer privacy and websites that mine personal data. They included deleting cookies, logging out of social media while browsing the web, strengthening privacy settings on your smartphone, utilize browser add-ons, and consistently check your privacy settings on sites such as Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter.

For now, these are steps that individuals can take to limit their exposure to data collection used by companies. However, these methods do not solve the overall problem that companies can legally expand their capabilities to intrude on privacy as well as track and potentially manipulate behavior.

Facebook’s growing market power should be concerning, especially for younger generations that are dependent on it. As noted in the hearings, finding the right government regulation to protect user privacy would be a challenge for lawmakers, and could even potentially lead to Facebook bolstering its influence.

What does this mean? Our individual privacy is dwindling away as we know it. The responsibility is on us to make prudent decisions regarding our social media and internet activity.

Mitchell Siegel is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “truth be told,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.