The news has been buzzing about Facebook and the ways in which it accumulates and reveals information about its users. There have been calls for people to #DeleteFacebook, and chances are that by the time you read this, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer, will have testified before Congress. The proverbial feces hit the fan this month when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm mined data on about 50 million Facebook users and provided that to the Trump campaign during the 2016 U.S. election. It’s also important to note that this was not a “hack” of Facebook’s computers. The data—at the time the exploit occurred—was accessible to anyone writing a Facebook App.
In 2014, a Russian-American researcher working at Cambridge University, Aleksandr Kogan, developed a Facebook App, a quiz called “This Is My Digital Life.” About 270,000 Facebook users took the quiz, but due to an ill-considered feature of the Facebook Applications Programming Interface (API), Kogan accessed the information of millions of other users, since the API made it possible to look at any person’s list of friends. Collecting this information was in violation of Facebook’s developer agreement, but there were no guards in the API to prevent such a violation.
The sad fact of the digital world is that it’s easy to copy (and propagate) digital information. As a result, once information about you is visible, it can be copied again and again, without your permission and without any ability to stop the process, other than perhaps a lawsuit. That is how the data made its way to Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook corrected their API in 2015, and appears to be doing a much better job of reining the access that Apps have to your data (and that of your friends). And while this seems scary, it’s certainly much less worrisome than the Equifax breach—a legitimate hack—which revealed much more potentially-damaging information on 150 million people. It’s hard to steal someone’s identity with the information that Facebook inadvertently made available.
I admit, I’m partially addicted to Facebook, but I’ve never believed Facebook was some sort of benevolent force for good, despite their stated mission to: “… give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.“ Facebook sells eyeballs to advertisers. Your eyeballs. Your attention. You are the product being sold.
At this point, it’s good to note that Facebook does not sell your data. In fact, that would be bad for business. What Facebook does sell is advertising, and it uses what it does know about you to allow advertisers to target specific types of Facebook users. (For example, white males over 60 who spend way too much time on Facebook. Or, in other words, me). Selling that information directly to advertisers would make Facebook an unnecessary middleman. As Doc Searles, journalist and author of The Intention Economy said, “Facebook makes money…by profiling us and then selling our attention to advertisers, political actors and others. These are Facebook’s true customers, whom it works hard to please.”
Searles goes on to make the point that every free service on the Internet does exactly the same thing to pay for those free services. In short, everybody’s doing it. It’s just that Facebook (using social media) and Google (using search) are the biggest players. Whether they started out that way or not, Facebook and Google developed into advertising platforms. Keeping up with your friends, or searching the Internet, are just the way they attract and target eyeballs for all that advertising.
Everyone seems to be shocked that there’s (gasp!) targeted advertising going on at Facebook! Yes, Facebook screwed up prior to 2015 and made information too accessible via its API. Alas, that horse is out of the barn. You can’t put the digital information toothpaste back in the tube.
As a business, what should you do? Some businesses have taken down their Facebook pages in protest, but frankly, I think that’s stupid. Facebook is the largest social media platform (and owns two other big draws, Instagram and WhatsApp). Your customers and fans are probably there, and you’re probably connected with them if you have a Facebook presence. I don’t think that the current “scandal” will significantly affect Facebook long-term. Their stock price dropped on the news, but a couple weeks later it appears to be recovering.
Ironically, The Wall Street Journal reported today that, in fact, Cambridge Analytica did not deliver significant results for the Trump campaign, and that the campaign stopped using their “targeted psychographic” advertising. What’s the big deal then? News media are also there to sell advertising, and creating a big story is one way to get you to read the news.
So keep your personal and business Facebook accounts, but use “Settings/Apps” to manage your App-related privacy. For more information, go to tinyurl.com/techtalk2018-05a. And always remember, “If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer. You're the product being sold.”
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