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Huge Leap in Number of Facebook Users 'Very Concerned' About Invasion of Privacy on Social Media Site

The Gallup poll was conducted in the lead-up to Facebook CEO's two-day congressional testimony to discuss the company's policies and failures to protect users' data

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's testimony in Congress this week was met with demands for changes to the company's privacy and data collection practices. (Photo: @HowardMortman/Twitter)

On the heels of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg's two-day congressional testimony to address the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the company's failure to protect users' personal data, new polling indicates a growing number of the social media network's users are "very concerned" about invasion of privacy when using the website.

A new Gallup poll, which was conducted in the lead-up to Zuckerberg's trip to Capitol Hill and released Wednesday, found that 43 percent of users are "very concerned"—a 13-point jump from the last survey in 2011—and 31 percent are "somewhat concerned" about privacy on the platform. This comes as more Americans report having Facebook profiles—56 percent, up from only 43 percent seven years ago.

 "If Facebook is truly committed to protecting people's privacy, the company should set an example, by adhering to highest data protection standards for all users."
—Privacy International

A new question asked this year found that 55 percent of surveyed users are "very concerned" and 25 percent are "somewhat concerned" that their personal information may be "sold to and used by other companies and organizations."

Because Facebook doesn't charge users a service fee, the company says its financial viability depends on using personal data to maintain its advertising scheme.

As Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg explained last week, the network shows users targeted ads based on personal data. Sandberg was sharply criticized for suggesting that if users wanted the ability to opt out of data collection for advertising, "that would be a paid product."

The company's data collection practices are a huge focus of the current debate—and the scandal that led to Zuckerberg's appearance in Congress. Ahead of the hearings, the company announced that not only had Cambridge Analytica improperly gathered data from up to 87 million users—rather than the previously reported 50 million—but also "malicious actors" had exploited the site's search features to collect information from "most" of its two billion users. 

In light of these recent revelations, Privacy International on Wednesday called for "real data protection—not just better privacy settings." The London-based technology rights group published a lengthy explanation of how Facebook uses data "profiling" to exploit the information it collects:

In both hearings before the Senate, Zuckerberg only mentioned two kinds of data: the information that people decide to share on the platform, and the data that is automatically collected about people's behavior. But there's a third kind of data: data that is derived, inferred, or predicted from the data that people share and that is recorded about their behavior.

This third type of data can reveal shockingly invasive insights. In contrast to the information that users (more or less) willingly share, the vast majority of users have no idea that such data even exists...

Such profiling is dangerous because it completely exceeds individual control. It's also dangerous because people don't know how they have been profiled—or whether their profile is biased, wrong, or otherwise unfair. An accurate profile can reveal details, like our sexual orientation, that we never decided to disclose in the first place. An inaccurate profile, that misidentifies or misclassifies us can have equally harmful implications.

"Privacy settings alone won't address the problems that profiling poses. That is why regulating profiling is perhaps one of the most pressing privacy issue of our time," the group concluded. "If Facebook is truly committed to protecting people's privacy, the company should set an example, by adhering to [the] highest data protection standards for all users."

Although much of the current international discussion about internet privacy is focused on Facebook's recently publicized policies and failures, the Gallup poll also found a greater number of Google users are concerned about their protecting their privacy when using the platform—35 percent are "very concerned," a 10-point jump from 2011.

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