2018-03-28 / Columns

What has Facebook been doing with my data?


Social media and mainstream news outlets were exploding with the revelation that a data analytics firm—bankrolled by conservative hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebecca, and whose board once included Breitbart.com leader Steve Bannon—had improperly used personal data on 50 million Facebook users to create psychographic profiles of those users, aimed at manipulating their behavior in the 2016 election and beyond.

It got even worse when British TV outlet Channel 4 unveiled secret videos it recorded with senior executives at Cambridge Analytica, the data firm, in which the executives bragged about their ability to manipulate consumer and voter behavior and suggested that they also were willing to employ prostitutes and bribes to entrap political candidates in opposition to their clients.

It’s particularly important because Cambridge Analytica was also engaged by the Trump campaign to help with its online voter outreach efforts during the 2016 election. It’s also important that Facebook executives apparently knew several years ago that Cambridge had retained improper control of Facebook user data, but did nothing to fix the issue, and did not notify the Facebook users that their data might have been misused.

And of course, Facebook isn’t giving up the millions of dollars it earned selling your personal data to Cambridge Analytica.

How did things get so out of hand? Facebook has always had a difficult time understanding its responsibility to protect user data.

I think it stems from the way most Facebook users misunderstand the relationship we have with the social media site. We are not Facebook’s customers. We are Facebook’s products.

Its customers are the consumer products companies, activist groups, political campaigns and others who pay Facebook hefty fees for the privilege of access to carefully tended gardens of data describing our likes and dislikes in excruciating and very intimate detail.

These companies pay Facebook for access to us. You and me. They are buying our personalities in bulk, and analytic firms like Cambridge mine that data to construct scientifically accurate profiles of what makes people tick.

These profiles were subsequently used, we now know, to send out false news stories or opinion designed to inflame emotions in particular segments of the population. In Florida, Facebook users saw false news stories about crime by Latin American immigrants.

Every time you participate in one of those cute surveys on Facebook, like the ones that show you a picture of Howdy Doody and ask you to “click Like if you know who this is,” you are giving Facebook one more data point about your demographic profile that can be sold to the highest bidder. The articles to which you give a thumbs-up, the groups you join, the games you play, all tell Facebook and its customers an awful lot about you.

They tell Facebook so much that there was a spoof video a couple of years ago in which the government gave Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg a medal for saving the country from having to spend billions for the CIA to collect this information. “We never realized that people would just give it to us for free,” an actor playing a government official says in the video. (Watch the SATIRE video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFH3uLuNL5Y).

The problem now for Facebook is that the revelations strain what little trust exists between the social media giant and the people who use it every day to comment on current affairs, catch up with family and friends, and learn what’s going on around their communities.

At the time of this writing, Facebook’s Zuckerberg has yet to issue a public statement regarding the abuse of personal data, the UK has issued search warrants for Facebook (European data privacy laws are much stricter than US laws), and Cambridge Analytica may find itself in Special Prosecutor Mueller’s crosshairs as he probes links between its psychographic profiling and Russian trolls and automated processes posting fake stories on Facebook.

That leaves Facebook’s products— you and me—feeling just a little naked in public and wondering what else they are going to do to us in the upcoming election season.

Email me at steve@compuschmooze.com for suggestions on changing your privacy settings on Facebook. 

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