Welcome to our reflection of Facebook’s greatest crisis to date. March 17th the story broke – the analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica had obtained the personal data of more than 87 million people, mostly users in the United States, from Facebook. This is the firm that had worked with the Trump campaign, helping them towards winning the 2016 election.
What did Cambridge Analytica do wrong?
Cambridge Analytica is a firm that uses data to analyze people’s behavior, with the purpose of changing or influencing that behavior. According to their website, “data drives all we do”. Still, how did this relationship between CA and Facebook develop? According to an article, The Antisocial Network in The Economist, news of Cambridge Analytica selling Facebook data was first reported in December 2015. Facebook sent a letter eight months later asking the firm to delete all the data. Unfortunately, the tech giant did not check whether it was erased or not, and even more troubling is the fact that Facebook did not notify users.
Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data by hiring Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, an academic psychologist and data scientist. Kogan was suppose to gather information of what Facebook users “Like”. Reports also state that some Facebook users were offered money to take a survey through an app that Kogan created, “This Is Your Digital Life”. Kogan was then able to collect data from users and their Facebook friends. When you downloaded the app, it stated in its terms and services that it will collect data from its users and their friends.
Since The New York Times and Observer newspapers reported this, Facebook’s stock has plunged almost 18%, wiping $40 billion from the company’s market capitalization. The twist in this scandal is that while the actions were arguably unethical they weren’t illegal. As Cambridge Analytica itself has argued, it was using Facebook as it was designed to be used. Kogan received the information legally and within the rules of Facebook (although he should not have passed on the data). It was therefore, not a “hack” like we typically think. However, the actions do bring to light, the concerning privacy practices of Facebook and similar companies.
Troubling Facebook privacy practices come to the fore
One of the most concerning elements of Facebook’s data practices, is how it works together with so-called “data brokers”. It’s the data brokers that attempt to dig up everything else about individuals, like property records, purchase histories, voter polls, loyalty card programs and more. To put into perspective the importance of this additional data, it’s worth examining the 3 types of data streams that marketers could use for targeting audiences. Firstly, there is data they had collected themselves, like names and emails. Secondly, information gathered from Facebook, which will contain data on users based on how they use the platform (such as web browsing history and cellular location). And thirdly, by using data provided by third-party companies like Oracle and Experian. Under the scrutiny that Facebook is facing, it announced it would end its partnership with data brokers. This gives companies like Experian, Acxiom and other data brokers a headache, since through this program, it allowed advertisers to closely target specific groups of profiles. Acxiom reported that this change could cut its fiscal 2019 revenue by as much as $25 million – its shares dropped 34% on the news.
Another concerning privacy practice is that Facebook collects data from people who are not users – so-called “shadow profiles”. As the journal, The Verge, points out even if you do not have a Facebook account, you’ve likely appeared in the contact list of people who do. When users connect their email account, the contact details of non-users are swept up. Instead of deleting the information it picked up from the non users, Facebook keeps it and holds it. During the congressional hearing, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg said, “When (users) signed up for Facebook, they signed up for this as well.” However he was unable to answer how non-users could prevent their data being collected. The U.S Federal Trade Commision is now investigating whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent agreement, which agrees to protect users’ information.
Zuckerberg in the spotlight
All of these practices are concerning, and as a result, Zuckerberg appeared in the media spotlight, being grilled by Congress this week. Here, he agreed that federal regulation of Facebook and other internet giants is “inevitable”. But we’re not sure how much Zuckerberg “agrees” – he still pushed back saying, “I think a lot of times regulation puts in place rules that a large company like ours can easily comply with, but small startups can’t”. He also mentioned that he would not automatically oppose federal regulations as long as they’re the “right regulations”. And while some senators posed effective, knowledgeable questions to Zuckerberg, it was disheartening to see a fundamental lack of knowledge of the basic workings of the internet and social media, from many of our politicians.
While we wait for regulation, download your Facebook data to see what it, and advertisers, know about you
In the meantime, while we wait to see what comes of the threats of regulation – remember this: the data that Facebook has goes far beyond what we think it collects – think of every message you’ve ever sent, every location you have been to, every IP address you’ve accessed from Facebook. All of this data can be analyzed to predict your fundamental qualities, from your intelligence to your political persuasion. I recommend downloading your data (it’s easy to do, under the “settings” menu on Facebook), to see what the company really knows about you. From the friends you unfriended back in 2013, to the time you logged-in to the site on holiday – it’s all there. Time will only tell what will come of this scandal. One thing that gradually everyone seems to be certain on is that regulation is no longer an option, it’s a must. And as Senator John Kennedy told Zuckerberg, “your user agreement sucks”.