You see this?
— CNN (@CNN) March 22, 2018
Oh, please! Alan Jacobs nails it:
Zuck: “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. “ Not protecting your data *is his entire business model*. You could not possibly lie more brazenly than he does here. Why won’t people just *say* that?
— Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) March 22, 2018
But see, that’s why I have had a hard time understanding why the Cambridge Analytica scandal is such a big deal. What on earth did people think Facebook was, a public utility? As Alan Jacobs says, hoovering up your data and selling it is Facebook’s economic reason to exist!
Cambridge Analytica got the Facebook info in a dodgy way, but it’s not all that new. Adrian Chen writes in The New Yorker:
In 2012, Barack Obama’s reëlection campaign used a Facebook app to target users for outreach, giving supporters the option to share their friend lists with the campaign. These efforts, compared with those of Kogan and Cambridge Analytica, were relatively transparent, but users who never gave their consent had their information sucked up anyway. (Facebook has since changed its policies.) As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written, Facebook itself is a giant “surveillance machine”: its business model demands that it gather as much data about its users as possible, then allow advertisers to exploit the information through a system so complex and opaque that misuse is almost guaranteed.
Chen goes on to explain why Cambridge Analytica really is a scummy operation, but concludes with the perfectly reasonable point that people don’t mind data mining until it’s used for a cause they don’t like (such as electing Donald Trump).
Hundreds of millions of Facebook users are likely to have had their private information harvested by companies that exploited the same terms as the firm that collected data and passed it on to Cambridge Analytica, according to a new whistleblower.
Sandy Parakilas, the platform operations manager at Facebook responsible for policing data breaches by third-party software developers between 2011 and 2012, told the Guardian he warned senior executives at the company that its lax approach to data protection risked a major breach.
“My concerns were that all of the data that left Facebook servers to developers could not be monitored by Facebook, so we had no idea what developers were doing with the data,” he said.
Parakilas said Facebook had terms of service and settings that “people didn’t read or understand” and the company did not use its enforcement mechanisms, including audits of external developers, to ensure data was not being misused.
Parakilas, whose job was to investigate data breaches by developers similar to the one later suspected of Global Science Research, which harvested tens of millions of Facebook profiles and provided the data to Cambridge Analytica, said the slew of recent disclosures had left him disappointed with his superiors for not heeding his warnings.
“It has been painful watching,” he said, “because I know that they could have prevented it.”
OK, I understand the particular complaint here, and I am not remotely sorry to see Facebook suffer. But again, what do Facebook users think is happening to their personal data? Do they think it just sits there, unmonetized? John Podhoretz gets it:
You’ve likely spent a thousand hours or more on Facebook over the past decade. Did you think that the energy-sucking servers holding your photos and hosting the groups dedicated to your high-school class and your neighborhood ran on good wishes?
Did you think the company that has allowed you to consume news and opinion at no cost whatsoever to you was doing so out of the goodness of its collective heart?
Did you think . . . it was free?
Did you really not know that your agreement with Facebook was that Mark Zuckerberg would provide you with hours a day of enjoyment in exchange for your personal information?
There isn’t an adult in this country who shouldn’t know better than to screech in anguish at the supposed horrifying discovery that his or her “personal data” have been gathered by social-media networks and others to earn the dough necessary to run these networks and make massive profits besides.
As Techdirt’s Karl Bode points out, Facebook deserves our disapprobation. But it’s only one of the many privacy scoundrels operating in the technosphere. Your “bloat-laden smartphone” harvests and sells personal information, including real-time location, to third parties. Your internet service provider does the same with your online habits. Gizmodo readers know all about how home devices—toothbrushes, smart TVs, Amazon Echos, sleep monitors, coffee makers, thermostats, smart lights, bathroom scales, et al.—spy on them via the internet. Meanwhile, car companies have joined the queue to sell your driver data. We’re living in a Philip K. Dick novel!
Yes, Facebook is and always has been a rapacious and creepy thing, pestering you to tell it more and more about yourself so that it can hawk your profile to more and more places. But why is it catching the extraordinary heat?
Facebook refuseniks are as likely as not to end up diddling their time away on other services that mint money by keeping tabs on users: Twitter, LinkedIn, the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned Instagram, Snapchat, etc.
Still, if it will make you feel better to nuke your Facebook account, go ahead strike that blow against the empire. Just don’t confuse your minor act of rebellion with throwing off the internet surveillance shroud that you’ve wrapped yourself up in tighter than a taquito.
“The closest I got to deleting was maybe a year or so ago,” said Laurel Brooks, a 27-year-old program assistant in D.C. She wanted to focus on grad school, and the political content on her feed was becoming draining. “I was on the deactivation page and then remembered I had all my family pictures on there.”
Brooks’s mother was killed six years ago. Some of those photos were on her mother’s Facebook page, which she memorialized after her mother’s death. “I know I could still technically view it as a nonuser. I just couldn’t do it,” Brooks said.
Facebook, for Brooks, is also how she keeps in touch with family members abroad, some of whom are otherwise hard to reach. She has made real friends through communities and groups on the platform. But that reach is a double-edged sword, in Brooks’s experience. Over the years since she joined Facebook in junior high school, her perception has shifted, and Facebook now feels more like a place that tries to “exploit” her personal information, even as it fails to, in her view, adequately address the harassment and hate speech she and her friends see on the platform.
I’m on Facebook, but rarely check it, and only post every so often, so I’m probably of not much use to Zuckerberg. I’d like to quit Facebook on principle, but I’m lazy, and I’m probably wrapped tight as a taquito into other data-mining sources, so I can’t get too worked up about it. Am I wrong?
Finally, Bloomberg’s Leonid Beshidsky points out that Zuckerberg — who has apologized several times before over similar scandals — really can’t meaningfully change Facebook’s policy without destroying his business model. Excerpt:
Is there a Zuckerberg response that would reassure users that this is not going to happen to them? In theory, sure. Zuckerberg could say his platform would reject all political advertising, take measures against all data scraping and provide no data to political actors. That, however, would be a slippery slope; nobody wants to be a guinea pig for big corporations, either. Give users a finger and they’ll bite off the whole arm, destroying Facebook’s painstakingly built microtargeting-based business model. Or if they don’t, they’ll take precautions, disguise themselves, and delete or obscure much of their personal data.
Smaller sacrifices, however, may be useless against the critical mass of popular disapproval that has accumulated while Zuckerberg struggled with his minimalist solution to the fake news issue. What do people want from him, anyway? Do they want a environment that produces lots of quality data or do they want Facebook to stop collecting data? Perhaps both? But then, how would Facebook make money?
Facebook can’t be trusted to keep your information safe. That’s clear. But why was it okay for Facebook to sell your privacy data to anybody who asks for it in the first place? That’s the price of doing business with Facebook — and, as has been made clear, with a lot of Internet businesses and services. The only failsafe way to protect your data is not to give it out. Good luck with that plan.
For now, I’m satisfied with the fact that I provide Facebook with minimal data, and don’t use it much. I have a ton of unanswered friend requests that I haven’t even looked at for over a year, because I’m already unfollowing most of the people I’m friends (“friends”) with, unless I know them pretty well. Facebook is nothing but a tool for me. Is that enough? Tech people, let me know.
Finally, enjoy this from 2009:
“This is their information. They own it”
“And you won’t sell it?”
“No! Of course not.”
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, talking to the BBC in 2009. pic.twitter.com/mVrhp0TpIS
— BBC Business (@BBCBusiness) March 20, 2018
UPDATE: Reader C.L.H. Daniels comments:
Yes, you’re wrong. You would be utterly shocked at how much information big data algorithms can derive from even the smallest and seemingly inconsequential of things. That’s the power of statistical sampling on such a massive scale. Even your choice of words in a post about something utterly banal gives away information about you, because Facebook can correlate and cross reference it against millions of other users that it knows more about. A single sentence can tell them your education level, probable income bracket, and even reveal what part of the country you live in. You may think you don’t put sensitive information on Facebook, but the power of these algorithms is such that they can easily deduce and infer sensitive information from the seemingly trivial and unrelated. As another commenter mentioned, the only way to win is not to play – it is impossible to interact with Facebook, even in passing, without it learning a truly shocking amount of information about you.
Here’s why that is a much bigger deal than you think it is. Imagine a future where Mark Zuckerberg decides he wants to be President-for-life. He has at his fingertips the most advanced and comprehensive set of data on Americans ever assembled; its power is so immense that it is almost unquantifiable. The propaganda campaigns it could be marshaled to support are almost inconceivable in their subtlety and potential effectiveness. Imagine messages tailored especially to you appearing in ads all over the internet, following you around, playing on your streaming music and video services, beamed into apps on your phone. Imagine that they understand you almost perfectly, what you hope for, what you’re afraid of, what you love and what you hate, and exploit that knowledge with ruthless efficiency. Imagine that they are tested and retested millions and billions of times a day, that they evolve in effect and impact at rates only possible with the inconceivable speed of machine learning. Now imagine all of this power marshaled in support of the causes that you most fear.
Why aren’t you afraid? I certainly am.