Over the years, Facebook and Instagram have faced mammoth fines for violating users’ privacy around the world. However, there was nothing but pin-drop silence when News18 asked the parent company Meta about data collection practices in India.
The company is not bound under any existing law in India to reveal what type of data these platforms collect from users, where they store these digital details, whether they store it in India or outside the country and who has access to such information. However, the company’s hesitation in sharing such information definitely makes alarm bells ring.
To dig deeper into the issue, News18 reached out to those who have an understanding of how these companies function. They not only revealed what type of data Facebook and Instagram collect but also shared their insights about data storage and monitoring practices.
Monitoring User Behaviour
News18 asked Meta whether Facebook and Instagram know how long a user has watched a particular video or post and when they skipped it as well as whether they keep track of such user behaviour.
Even though Meta did not respond to the query, Major Vineet, Founder and Global President of CyberPeace Foundation, said companies do keep track of users’ data consumption in the form of what videos we watch, share and like. He noted that this form of data tracking enables the platforms to show users content that might be amusing on the pretext of previously viewed content.
Vineet said: “It can also be seen in some cases when one searches for a particular product on e-commerce websites and then sees the ads of the same product on their social media platforms as well. This is all part of big data management and processing by analysing the data consumption of an individual since the software can predict the behaviour of the person.”
The chief technology officer at ESDS Software Solutions Ltd, Rushikesh Jadhav, highlighted that social media platforms can also have hidden agendas in which they target specific users or individuals with particular impressions or ideas.
For instance, if a social media company is incentivised to sell a particular smartphone to a user, they might promote relevant tech and positive reviews of that product to that user, thereby manipulating their opinion about the product.
“So not only do these platforms track user behaviour, but they also manipulate it by promoting certain content or changing opinions about specific products,” he added.
Third-Party Data Sharing
Neha Suyal, co-founder of Woovly, a company which advertises on these platforms, and Upendran Nandakumar, founder of digital marketing company Ayatiworks, strongly believe in the policies of these platforms to protect user data.
While Suyal said the processes put in today are comparatively stringent than before, Nandakumar believes that it is also important for users to be aware of such practices and opt out of data sharing with third parties if they wish.
However, Jadhav said such platforms share various details such as “user age, gender, language, and region” with third-party companies and this data is used to target advertisements for specific individuals.
“Social media companies also share user data with third parties for background checks, platform safety, and other reasons. They profile users and categorise them as neutral, dangerous, or positive influencers for their platform,” Jadhav added.
Data Storage and Access
Along with the above questions, News18 also tried to confirm with Meta where they store India’s data and whether foreign employees have access to it. However, the firm denied a comment.
CPF’s Vineet said apart from the data centres in the US and Ireland, Meta is establishing a Mumbai data centre, which will allow the Indian user to utilise the grievance redressal mechanisms more easily.
But according to Jadhav, the terms of service for these social media platforms typically state that user data may be used for analytical or performance optimization purposes by the company. This strongly suggests that the company has access to user data both within and outside the country.
Type of Data
As per the analysis and experts who know about the business practices, Facebook and Instagram collect personal details (name, email address, phone number, date of birth, and home address), location data and usage data, device data (such as the OS and device settings), IP address, browser type and other related information.
Facebook and Instagram also collect online activity data, which includes information on when and how often users log in, their preferred log in time, and the order in which they engage with platform features, such as checking notifications or scrolling through the news feed.
Additionally, they track the type of content users engage with, such as what they like, dislike, comment, or repost, as well as the type of content they repeatedly watch.
“Facebook and Instagram look at users’ contact details to see who is on their contact list, how often they communicate with these individuals, the nature of the calls, and the call duration. Overall, these apps collect an extensive amount of user data from users’ devices,” Jadhav said.
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