What You Must Learn from Facebook’s Mistakes with User Data


Share on LinkedIn

Facebook is in hot water with their users regarding the use of personal data. No matter where you are as a Facebook user—or not, as the case may be—we can all learn three crucial lessons from Facebook’s mistakes.

To summarize, the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March. Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that helped Trump win the 2016 election, had the personal data of around 87 million Facebook users. When compounded with allegations that Facebook allowed Russian propaganda and phony headlines to reach and ostensibly influence voters, this news invited scrutiny on how the social media site uses personal data.

(For a more robust summary of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, this article covers it well.)

Facebook did nothing illegal. At the time I am writing this, no charges are pending against anyone at Facebook relative to this scandal. However, illegal and wrong are not the same things.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill in April, facing a joint session of the Senate Commerce and judiciary committees and a lot of tough questions. Zuckerberg apologized for not taking a “broad enough view” of Facebook’s responsibility. The Senate leaders want to change how data is used, whether it is voluntary or mandatory.

What We Can Learn from Facebook’s Mistakes

Facebook did not properly control users’ data from app developers. What’s worse, Facebook was not transparent with users about it. It shows a lack of maturity by Facebook and damages Facebook’s relationship with their users.

I use Facebook for business and personal. I keep these two accounts separate. However, it has always surprised me how often I get a recommendation to friend business people for my personal account and vice versa. I was also surprised to learn that Facebook’s Messenger App uploads all of the contacts you have on your phone. I also discovered in my research for this article that you might delete things from your Facebook account, but they aren’t removed. My colleague rightly said, “Facebook never forgets.”

All that said, I am not going to delete my accounts, but I am more aware than I have ever been about what I am telling them. For me, this scandal comes down to three substantial issues:

  1. If anyone sells user data, it should be the user.
  2. Making it easy to retain privacy makes it easy to retain trust.
  3. Remember if you use something for free, YOU are the product.

If Anyone Sells the Data, It Should Be the User

Now, collecting data on people is nothing new. Businesses do it all the time. It is, frankly, something I encourage my clients to do. In our global customer experience consultancy, we see the value in knowing for the future how customers feel and what they do as a result of those feelings. We also want to know how much customers’ personalities influence their decisions.  We often create segments of customers to help train front-line employees on how to deliver an excellent Customer Experience that works for each segment’s personal preferences.

We collect customer data to earn more of their business and foster loyalty. The best way to do that is to understand how psychological drivers help people make decisions. We use what data customers give us to discover how they think (psychological drivers) and then give customers more of what they want.

However, we don’t sell the customer’s data nor do we collect it without the customer’s knowledge. Facebook does both. In my view, the user should own the data, not Facebook, and if the user wants to sell it, the user should sell it to the highest bidder—not give it away for free. But more on that later.

Making it Easy to Retain Privacy Makes it Easy to Retain Trust

Protecting your privacy as a customer should be easy. Period.

Every so often, a status update will appear in my personal account’s feed of some way to change your privacy settings so that the wrong eyeballs can’t see it. This grass roots communication about protecting your privacy on Facebook should be unnecessary.

Facebook is not transparent on how to protect your privacy, nor do they make it easy. It’s understandable when you consider what they do with the data they do have. It’s a huge selling point for them to advertisers. It is also a huge mistake.

Facebook collects data in a convoluted way. Also, the intricate process needed to protect your privacy from changing audiences on the types of posts (e.g., tagging vs. timelines, etc.) to navigating between different settings menus, (i.e., one is on the profile and another on the upper right of the home page) builds mistrust. Therefore, when Facebook uses your data in a way that does not feel above board, you trust Facebook less, and, presumably, use them less.

We all should make it easy for customers to keep their data private. In fact, I would even have it be something that it is always private unless they opt to have their data viewed. Moreover, I would have regular reminders sent to customers to check their privacy settings along with an easy-to-follow instructional how to do it. To be fair, Facebook has been doing that of late.

Remember You Are the Product

Here is a crucial concept everyone should understand: If something is free, then YOU are the product.

People were not aware of the depth and breadth of the data Facebook collected. If you want to download what they have on you, please click here. All of this information is what Facebook sells, to advertisers, to app developers, and to foreign governments, enabling these entities to target you with their message.

If the results of that download exercise alarmed you, consider the footprint you make with your phone—such as your location, down to a few feet. But it isn’t only your location; it is also what you type, where you visit, and even what you say.  Hey Siri, Hey Google, and Amazon Alexa activate when you call on them. To do this, it means they are also listening. All the time. To every word you say.

People are naïve if they think that some things in life are free. Everyone should understand that nothing is free. In the case of Facebook, you are paying with your privacy. (For those of you feeling sympathetic to the #DeleteFacebook movement, you can Deactivate your Account in the General Account Settings.

Facebook’s use of user data needs improvement, a sentiment shared by Senate committees, users everywhere, and even the CEO of Facebook himself. What we have discovered over the past few months about how our data is used can teach us all a lot about how we should use our customer’s data as well. Customers should own their data, and it should be easy for them to protect it. We should also understand that nothing in life is free and we should know what the price is for a free service. In Facebook’s case, it is a little bit of your privacy. Users will decide if it was worth it or not.

With reference to ‘Facebook never forgets’, I would also say that once a customer feels that you have taken advantage of their data, they will never forget either.

Let us know if you have you taken any action or changed your opinions since the Cambridge Analytica debacle?


“Facebook Cambridge Analytica Scandal: 10 Questions Answered.” Fortune.com. Web. 10 April 2018. Web. 17 April 2018. <http://fortune.com/2018/04/10/facebook-cambridge-analytica-what-happened/

Chen, Brian X. “I Downloaded the Information that Facebook Has on me. Yikes.” www.nytimes.com. 11 April 2018. Web. 17 April 2018. < https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/technology/personaltech/i-downloaded-the-information-that-facebook-has-on-me-yikes.html>.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here