Condemn Facebook’s lax attitude toward user information theft
With the exception of the extremely lucky or reclusive, most of us have ended up being tied up in the giant human tapestry known as Facebook at some point. The California-based tech company and the namesake social media platform it operates have become an almost indispensable component of our lives.
From its humble origins in a Harvard dorm room, Facebook has grown into a bona-fide colossus in both Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Previous generations may have exchanged phone numbers or mailing addresses in order to stay in touch, but ask anyone under the age of 25, and they’ll tell you to friend them on Facebook. According to a Feb. 5 , over 68 percent of Americans use Facebook at least occasionally. That means nearly 214 million Americans have willingly surrendered their personal information to Facebook, whether they realize it or not.
Every single morsel of information you provide or content you interact with is collected and analyzed by Facebook’s sophisticated algorithms and held onto indefinitely. Using this jumble of information, Facebook is able to piece together a sophisticated portrait of its users’ demographics, interests and opinions. Advertisers value Facebook so highly compared to other social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube, not only for its reach but for its incredible ability to know exactly who its users are, making its users ripe for perfectly targeted advertisements.
As harmless as this can sound at first brush, the optics of allowing a giant secretive corporation to know more about yourself than you do carries dangerous consequences, especially if that data is not carefully managed. If you want an example of how Facebook has failed its users, look no further than Cambridge Analytica. Founded in part by Steve Bannon, this conservative political consulting firm has found itself at the center of a recent debacle for Facebook. revealed that Cambridge Analytica had accessed the personal information of millions of American Facebook users without their permission.
Using an academic personality quiz written by Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogan as an entry point into Facebook users’ profiles, the firm violated Facebook’s terms of services by holding on to and selling off the data it gleaned. The stolen data was used to create political ads supporting the Donald Trump campaign targeted at users believed to be conservatives.
Furthermore, Britain's Channel Four of Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix admitting that his company was fully willing to engage in illegal tactics like creating trumped-up bribery charges and sex-based sting operations to swing elections. Nix bragged to a potential client that his company was single-handedly responsible for the Trump campaign’s digital operations and strategy, according to .
Facebook employees were aware of the data breach yet took no actions to stop it, as Cambridge Analytica was a trusted advertising partner, according to the same March 17 New York Times article. Billionaire conservative donor Robert Mercer had sponsored more than $15 million of advertisements for Cambridge Analytica, according to , and the social media titan would have been remiss to lose out on that revenue. This is far from the first time Facebook has put the bottom line over concern for its users’ safety and integrity, but this instance has proven far more troubling than previous failings.
Fully aware that a company with a reputation for illegal and immoral behavior had hijacked the information of millions of people with a political goal in mind, Facebook stood idly by until a media firestorm forced its hand. Facebook quietly dropped Cambridge Analytica and other Mercer-backed political action committees as approved partners, and Mark Zuckerberg used his personal Facebook to offer a personal mea culpa for the company’s actions.
Announcing immediate changes to how Facebook interacted with third-party tracking services and advertisers, Zuckerberg that “we have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you” and claimed that there “was a breach of trust between Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. But it was also a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it. We need to fix that.”
However, Zuckerberg’s post and later damage-control comments by COO Sheryl Sandberg failed to address the root issue. Facebook’s business model cannot function without the company convincing its users to hand over as much of their personal information as they possibly can, then reaping a handsome profit by selling that information to the highest bidder.
When questioned about the inherently questionable ethics of this model by the New York Times’ Kevin Roose in , Zuckerberg’s responses were hollow and disingenuous. “The thing about the ad model that is really important, that aligns with our mission is that — our mission is to build a community for everyone in the world and to bring the world closer together,” Zuckerberg explained. How, exactly, is mindlessly selling off the information of private citizens remotely beneficial toward the cause of bringing the world closer together?
One could argue that Facebook got off easy with Cambridge Analytica, as the firm’s limited reach and internal incompetence prevented it from utilizing the data it had collected to its fullest extent. If a more competent and malicious actor managed to access that same trove of data, the results could be catastrophic. Given the recent prevalence of Russian election interference, the idea of the Kremlin using Facebook to swing elections toward authoritarian and pro-Putin candidates is a real and frightening possibility.
Facebook’s lax attitude toward user security and accountability goes far past the U.S. and arguably presents a much bigger issue internationally. If an authoritarian regime like Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines goes looking for political opponents or “enemies of the state” to hunt down, Facebook could serve as an unwitting ally. If a two-bit firm like Cambridge Analytica could surmise the political leanings of millions of people from questionably obtained personal opinions, what’s to stop Russia or Iran from doing the same?
As long as Zuckerberg and his board of directors fail to understand the risks that their unchecked data collection and storage poses to Facebook’s users and everyone around them, events like the Cambridge Analytica breach will keep happening. Realistically, counseling every single user to delete their account simply isn’t possible. However, until Zuckerberg and his company get their act together, we should treat every single interaction with Facebook with a great degree of caution. Be careful with your information, because Facebook won’t be.