In Light of Facebook Electoral Scandal Lebanon Mulls Over Committee for Data Protection

Published April 16th, 2018 - 06:00 GMT
(AFP/ File Photo)
(AFP/ File Photo)

In the wake of revelations that Facebook shared data from millions of users with companies working on election strategy, local experts point to Lebanon’s lack of legal protections around information as troubling ahead of upcoming elections. “There is no law specifically [for] data protection in this digital age [in Lebanon],” Mohamad Najem, director at the nonprofit organization Social Media Exchange (SMEX), told The Daily Star. “So, any project related to citizens’ data that gets implemented by the government or a private company has the potential to breach personal data protection norms. The latest example is the data for expats voters.”

Lebanese expatriates were able to register to vote from abroad for the first time for the May 6 parliamentary elections through a purpose-built Foreign Ministry website.

However, the site did not alert visitors to the “cookies” being collected. Cookies allow their owners to track web users’ habits, effectively building up a profile of each user that can then be sold to advertisers.

Najem said there was a push in Lebanon for a law solely for data protection and for the establishment of “a committee that has the power to track and observe all the governmental projects around data collections.”

The recent reports that Facebook share the personal data of millions of users with the data mining and analysis company Cambridge Analytica and others have given new impetus to the debate.

The scandal resulted in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appearing before the United States Congress last week to answer questions on his company’s use of personal data.

“I am glad this happened publicly because now everyone is informed that this is an issue, and we need to do something about it,” Najem said of the revelations and the subsequent fallout.

The data was reportedly used by Cambridge Analytica to improve targeting of specific demographics to maximize advertising power in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Issues that have emerged surrounding data protection have sparked debates in the U.S. and the European Union around how best to manage the abundant information people put online. This has led the EU to undertake the drafting of a comprehensive data protection bill that will come into force on May 25.

However, the reaction in Lebanon has been muted, despite the large number of Facebook users in the country. According to a 2017 survey on media use in the Middle East by Northwestern University in Qatar, some 77 percent of Lebanese have a Facebook account and some 90 percent use WhatsApp. However, data protection is not on the Lebanese public agenda, even as the country’s first parliamentary elections in nine years approach.

The survey also found that about half of Lebanese internet users are worried about companies or the government checking their online actions but only 2 percent had stopped using their real name and only 4 percent had changed their privacy settings.

“It seems like a very trivial topic compared to all the serious problems Lebanon is facing,” Sara Mourad, assistant professor of media studies at AUB, told The Daily Star. Although she insisted it was an important issue, she said many users might not be aware of the extent to which their data is shared.

“We really have to think about regulations,” Mourad said, adding that the problem was not restricted to private companies, but that politicians too can use security issues as an excuse to chip away at privacy rights and collect data.

For instance, any data collected by the Lebanese Telecommunications Ministry via mobile providers Alfa and Touch is often shared with other government entities without notifying users.

In April 2017, Cabinet agreed to extend a system to share telecoms data with security agencies.

Joyce, a Lebanese artist who uses Facebook regularly and wished to only be identified by her first name, told The Daily Star that she wasn’t aware of potential risks of sharing her personal information on social media. “Data protection? I never thought about that. But I only share things I want to share so it is not a problem,” she said.

International experts covering the latest Facebook scandal have pointed out that many people like Joyce may not realize that even if they are not posting political or private information about themselves to their social media accounts, companies are still able to gather this kind of data.

The director of SMEX explained that “we can – to some extent – protect our data, but the main issue is that companies like Facebook, Google and others are tracking us online and use our data. They can fix this, not us.”

As Josh Carney, assistant professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and media studies at AUB, explained, this data is used for individual targeting.

This is a technique through which companies try to sell their products more effectively by advertising items or services to people with matching profiles. According to Carney, the current Facebook scandal suggests that this can be extended to voters and swing public opinion.

Personal information has long been collected offline through polling and market research and then used to improve targeted corporate advertising as well as by political parties to swing elections.

However, Carney said the collection of data online has more far-reaching consequences and raises the question of whether future elections will be won or lost on the back of data mining and analysis resources.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

Copyright © 2019, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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