I reluctantly joined Facebook back in December 2011. During the couple of years I had the account, I learned more and more about the shadowy monster that provided us with our
daily hourly doses of dopamine in the forms of likes, shares and status updates.
This brings us to the first inconvenient – and most obvious – truth about the so-called Cambridge Analytica case: there’s absolutely nothing new in any of it.
You know what’s also a fact? Everyone seems to know that this is nothing new, or at least everyone seems to have this some sort of vague understanding that maybe it’s not all sunshine and rainbows when it comes to Facebook.
Then what makes Cambridge Analytica case so special? Some would argue that it’s because 50 million people (or accounts) were involved, out of which 30 million psychographic profiles were created. Pretty impressive numbers, I’ll give you that, but looking at the big picture that’s still nothing. Facebook has 2.2 billion monthly active users, who knows how many accounts in total. In fact, there’s a whole data broker industry out there – biggest companies surpassing Google and Facebook easily – whose whole business model is to aggregate, analyze, compile and sell data sets about hundreds of millions (or probably billions) of people globally.
The key takeaway here is to understand none of this is ever just about the data that you hand over willingly, such as the phone number or email address you use to sign up to a service, or the messages you send to your friends and followers. There’s at least 98 different data points and seven categories of data that Facebook alone collects about its users. Then there’s all the different public, grey and other open data that can be pulled using your name, phone number, email address, street address or the combination of any of these. And don’t even get me started on Internet of Things:
“Heck, even the normies no longer scoff at the “conspiracy theorists” who warn that every one of your electronic gadgets is listening to everything you say and beaming that information off to third parties. Now they just think that’s a good thing.”
5 Privacies You Didn’t Know You Lost (March 23, 2018), The Corbett Report – Open Source Intelligence News
Another well reported, yet somehow overlooked truth is that when Cambridge Analytica gathered the data of these millions of profiles, it was done somewhat within the framework that Facebook allowed. Back in 2014 not only were Facebook’s privacy settings a lot looser by default, but their API made it possible for an app to pull data from not just its users, but also users’ Facebook friends. This is how a simple personality test Facebook-app eventually harvested 50 million Facebook profiles. According to some sources, Facebook wasn’t too happy (now several years later?) about the way the data was “improperly passed to third parties”. Whatever the case is, the fact remains that Facebook API (and policies?) at the time made it possible to collect data from app’s users and their Facebook friends, and this in turn means that there’s nothing indicating that Cambridge Analytica case would be a one-off incident. Facebook has openly admitted this (emphasis added):
“We’re also investigating every single app that had access to large amounts of data before we fixed this. We expect there are others.”
Mark Zuckerberg’s open letter (March 25, 2018), Washington Post
If there’s something positive to be found about Cambridge Analytica debacle, it’s that media has been surprisingly active this time around. Unfortunately, I suspect a large part of this is because the whole thing is directly related to Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russia narrative had pretty much lost any momentum it might have once had, so the media needed something new to throw against the most hated POTUS of the recent history.
Thanks to this media frenzy, #DeleteFacebook has been making rounds across different social media platforms (including Instagram, oh the irony). We all know how much millennials love their hashtag campaigns. It remains to be seen if this “movement” will even make a dent to Facebook’s user base, but one can always hope that this is now the straw that breaks the camel’s back and starts a paradigm shift in people’s attitudes towards their digital privacy and free (social media) lunches.
A while back, a fellow privacy-minded netizen B.J. Mendelson was kind enough to send me a copy of his latest book (thanks for that!). I’d like to finish off this blog post with an excerpt from that book, that I think fits the Cambridge Analytica case perfectly and mirrors my own thoughts as well:
“Here’s some good news: over the past twenty years that tech companies have been doing creepy things, we observe a cycle where people get annoyed, and then companies back off from doing their creepy stuff. Or they get sued, which is what happened with Netscape. Now, I’ve said in this book that the companies will typically go back to being creepy the second that we stop looking. I stand by that; however, for the optimistic among us, there is a decent argument to be made that if we make enough noise as users of their sites, the companies will back off from such policies permanently.”
Privacy: And How to Get It Back (2017), B.J. Mendelson