How in control of your online identity are you? If the case of consumer rights expert Martin Lewis is anything to go by, the answer is ‘not very’. The campaigner discovered that over a thousand adverts on social media giant Facebook had used either his image or quotations to promote their products, including fake endorsements for several investment schemes. When you consider that Mr Lewis has not endorsed a single product or service and indeed makes a point of refusing to do any endorsements whatsoever, it’s quite clear that the use of a person’s identity without their permission is rampantly out of control on social media.
However, he has decided now to drop his lawsuit against Facebook, after the corporation agreed to introduce a ‘scam ads’ reporting function that users can use to flag up suspicious adverts. Facebook has also agreed to give a £3million pay-out to consumer support group Citizens Advice, who have said they’ll use the money to identify and fight online scams. The new Citizens Advice scheme is set to launch in May and is focused on helping ordinary members of the public identify things such as fraudulent online activity and identity theft.
Originally, Facebook had defended its position on how it dealt with advertisements that had been flagged up as scams, but had also said it relied on user reports to alert when a problem with its content had been identified. Perhaps a touch of blame-shifting there by the platform, and roundly condemned as laughable by social media commentators. As any Facebook user will tell you, trying to get this enormous behemoth to respond to any report of suspicious or scam content seems to be incredibly hit and miss, and Mr Lewis is not the only person who has suffered at the hands of unscrupulous advertisers online.
Could the floodgates be about to open?
Things could be about to get even more complicated. On the 25th January, an announcement by Facebook that they are planning to merge and integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger has made technology watchers nervous. The move is supposed to create the ‘best messaging experiences’ for the billions of worldwide users, and while on the surface each platform will remain distinct, the underlying coding and infrastructure will be unified. That makes tech experts uneasy, as there’s no clear picture of how personal data from the various sites (albeit encrypted) will be stored or used.
They’re concerned WhatsApp users, in particular, could be revealing information about themselves that they’d rather keep confidential. The question of data privacy is a big one, as currently, WhatsApp users do not have to provide their name or any other information that could be used to identify them, other than their phone number.
Could GDPR hold Facebook accountable?
The status of the information you put up online has always been a bone of contention, and because of the sheer size and reach of Facebook, challenging how that information is stored and used by the giant is difficult. With the advent of the GDPR affecting how data in Europe is stored, collected and used, we could be about to witness a fundamental ground shift in how Facebook does business (and how they use data), forced by EU legislation.
How that’s going to translate in the UK, and how much protection British Facebookers are going to get over how their data is used, remains to be seen. GDPR is a good idea, and there certainly needs to be some re-evaluation of the current legislation to take into account the rise and rise of digital data collection. But will it be enough?
Catfishing – what can you do if someone steals your online identity?
While identity theft is a serious crime, companies using your pictures, comments or falsely using your name as an endorsement is a little more difficult to tackle, as up until now it hasn’t been taken seriously by the authorities. The practice, sometimes known as ‘catfishing’ named after the 2010 documentary, is disturbing, annoying, and to be honest, a little creepy. However, it can also have more serious consequences, especially if your online identity is then used to cause harm to your reputation. If it’s on Facebook then the best thing you can do is immediately report it as an ‘imposter account’. You have to go onto the fake profile and use the ‘Report’ button to do so, but once it’s reported Facebook are obliged to investigate.
The UK government is starting to recognise the seriousness of catfishing and are publishing a white paper this year with a view to making the practice a criminal offence. How successful it will be, though, remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the best advice is to talk to a legal expert who specialises in technology and identity theft cases. They will be able to help you negotiate with the platform provider and to limit any damage that a catfisher may cause to your online reputation. If it’s possible to identify them then you may be able to take direct legal action against them for defamation of character but do remember defamation cases can take a very long time to resolve. Again, we suggest getting good legal advice before you go down that particularly dark and murky digital rabbit hole.