Perhaps it was the flood of Mark Zuckerberg memes, perhaps the countless articles showing up in our news feeds, but regardless of how, we all have heard about the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal in one way or another.
This is a particularly interesting story because we have been aware about it for two years and also because we don’t quite know whether there was damage done – only that Cambridge Analytica miscommunicated their use of collected data. Most of what we know comes from Christopher Wyle, the director of research turned whistleblower at Cambridge Analytica.
Despite these factors, the ordeal has seen Facebook scrambling to save its name. The company is facing one of the biggest public relations scandals in its history. Mark Zuckerberg, the chairman and CEO of Facebook, has testified in front of the US Congress in a five-hour hearing, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the British authorities are investigating, and Facebook’s stock price has recently been steadily declining.
The whole thing started in 2014 when Aleksandr Kogan, a University of Cambridge researcher, created an app called ‘This Is Your Digital Life,’ which legally collected the personal data of about 270,000 people.
Kogan, then, passed on this information to a data mining and political strategy firm – Cambridge Analytica – without informing the users.
At the time, Facebook’s application programming interface (API) allowed other websites that are not owned by Facebook to access information about Facebook friends, which, as Wyle claims, let Cambridge Analytica gather the data of 50 million people. Facebook made it far too easy for the company to violate people’s data.
Screening likes, phone numbers, family members, ‘checked-in’ locations, or joined groups can help put together the puzzle of one’s personality traits and political stance, which then can be used to target political advertising more effectively.
Experts say that this effect can be largely overstated, which is why no one is sure just how useful the data was to Cambridge Analytica during their work with the Leave.EU and Trump campaigns.
Psychographic profiling is not a new thing on Capitol Hill. Politicians have used it for ages; however, the difference between how the Obama team did it and how Cambridge Analytica helped Trump do it, is that Cambridge Analytica totally violated Facebook’s rules and guidelines and did not inform anyone that their data would eventually be used for political advert targeting.
In 2015 The Guardian revealed the violations committed by Kogan and his ‘This Is Your Digital Life’ app. Zuckerberg never notified the users whose data was affected because, as he claims, he believed Cambridge Analytica deleted the data after Facebook demanded them to do so. Facebook never investigated further.
On March 16, 2018, The New York Times and The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica obtained the data of over 50 million users without their consent, suggesting that this data was used for the Trump campaign’s targeted advertising. After a five day delay, Zuckerberg wrote a Facebook post and gave a CNN interview apologising to users for Facebook’s failure to protect their data.
He also announced plans to prevent such abuses in the future. After the 2014 scandal, Facebook already banned developers from obtaining information about friends. Now, if an individual does not use an app for more than three months, the developer’s access to that person’s information is cut off. In the case of third-party developers who had access to all that information before the initial 2014 regulations, they have to submit to an audit or be kicked off the platform.
Facebook does not do any vetting of the people behind its apps to make sure they are trustworthy.
It only does brief checks to make sure the app is working properly. The company doesn’t even have an effective way of punishing violations, except for banning the app – and that is if its violations are discovered – from collecting data on users in the future, which doesn’t take away from the data they were already able to obtain.
Facebook has been progressively losing public trust. Research showing the negative effect of social media on self-image, the dangerously swift spreading of fake news across the platform surrounding the 2016 US election, and scandals concerning Kremlin advert campaigns being illegally purchased, are only a few reasons for the loss.
Now users want to know how the companies that have such intimate knowledge of their lives operate. Considering how misinformed and confused the senators questioning Zuckerberg were, Facebook does a poor job of that.
Recently, Facebook released a tool to allow users to check whether their data was used by Cambridge Analytica, which surely relieved some. Still, there are campaigns circulating to either limit one’s use of Facebook or delete their account altogether. With growing importance of an online presence for professional and social success, committing to such a drastic measures is impossible for some.
Minimising your online presence may not be enough if your goal is preventing developers from obtaining your private information. Through cookies and tracking ‘pixels’ Facebook can record data even while you are using websites that are neither owned nor operated by the company.
This can happen to users and non-users. Also, although data collection through friends was disabled in 2014, Facebook can still gather (limited) data on non-users if their friends upload all their contacts. Facebook also uses facial recognition, which can be employed on non-users through shared group photos, for example.
We shouldn’t give up social media and the internet altogether, because our lives are far too intertwined with the world wide web, but perhaps it should be regulated more strictly than it is now. Should the responsibility to protect users fall on the users themselves or should corporations and developers working with them take some responsibility? Do users even need protecting? For now, it seems that the only way to keep corporations in check is to impose laws and regulations to monitor them.
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