Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

In light of Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s April 10th congressional hearing, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about the Facebook data breach. If you’re starting to wonder what’s up with all the Facebook chatter you’ve been hearing, let us catch you up to speed:

What happened?

Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks after news broke that third party apps used through the platform were collecting users’ private data and then selling it to interested parties.

Specifically, a voter-profiling firm called Cambridge Analytica, gathered large amounts of people’s personal Facebook data in 2015 through a quiz-type Facebook app called “This Is Your Digital Life,” which was created by academic researcher Aleksander Kogan.

What was stolen?

87 million Facebook users’ personal data and demographic information.

We’ve all known the joys of the online quiz: answer a few simple questions and the internet will tell you what kind of personality we have (debater type ENTP – A, in case you are wondering).  But Kogan’s quiz-app did more than just tell people about themselves. Once installed through Facebook, the app would store the user’s answers, log their demographic information and even record their chat history. Worse still, the app would then gather the same basic information from any of the users’ Facebook friends, spreading out across the network as it “scraped” as much personal data as it could.

So, while Facebook wasn’t hacked, its lax privacy policies allowed Kogan’s app to gather, aggregate and store information that was later sold without user knowledge or consent. Basically, 87 million people had their privacy violated when they weren’t told their information was being taken or what it was taken for.

Once extracted from the Facebook databases, firms like Cambridge Analytica used this data to create psychometric profiles for individual Facebook users, then used these profiles to inform purchasing decisions for their clients involved in various political campaigns — namely the Brexit “Leave” campaign, Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign in the 2016 presidential primary, and President Trump’s campaign during the 2016 general election.

So how do I know if my information was stolen?

Facebook has a page you can use to check the status of your account.

They’ve already begun to notify victims affected by the data breach. If you haven’t been notified yet, chances are you’re in the clear, but if you — or one of your friends — installed the “This Is Your Digital Life” app on Facebook prior to 2015, odds are some of your data made it to the Cambridge Analytica servers.

Is that bad?

Tough question. Pragmatically speaking, even if your data was stolen, it probably won’t affect your day-to-day life, but it does raise some troubling issues…

What issues?

Glad you asked:

The Cambridge Analytica scandal shines a light on how big data companies like Facebook do business and how social platforms operate in general. Facebook has allowed third-party app developers to access private user data since its inception way back in 2007.

You may be asking yourself one or more of these questions….

  • Was Cambridge Analytica the only company hoarding personal information, or the only company to get caught?
  • If this kind of scraping has been possible since Facebook’s inception, how many other programs have utilized Kogan’s business model?
  • How many other companies have already built and sold similar databases, and to whom?

As Robinson Meyer mused in The Atlantic:

“Where is that information now? And if all that private user data is as powerful as Cambridge Analytica once said it was, what has it been used to do?”

Facebook users consent to giving their personal information to the apps they use, but most consumers rarely take the time to read the legal blotter of end user agreements (myself included). Should apps that present themselves as frivolous (like a personality quiz) be required to state upfront what their ulterior motives are? If they are gathering information do consumers have the right to ask what that information will be used for?

Honestly, the whole topic makes me a little verklempt.. Feel free to discuss amongst ye’selves.


Moving on.

Is this the start of a big-brother dystopian reality type situation?

*shudder* Scary thought, but worthy of examination.

Since the 2016 elections, civil liberty advocates have begun to seriously question the consequences of Facebook’s (and other social media platforms) growing role in how news and information is presented to the public.

Content curation algorithms, initially designed to cater directly to user interests, have had the unintended consequence of only presenting people with the kind of news they want to hear. The effective result of these “echo chambers” has been an increasingly polarized political discourse, and since political ads are not regulated as closely online as they are on TV and radio, these social platforms have been able to sell millions in political ads to companies like Cambridge Analytica, with almost no oversight.

The debate continues…

The effectiveness of hyper targeted ads on social media remains to be seen, but lawmakers are already calling out Facebook for their sale of political advertisements to groups outside of regions where elections are being held. (Cough, cough… Russia…)

In the face of all this scrutiny, Facebook has been quick to implement new policies, and Google and Twitter will soon be forced do the same. But, from the outside at least, these maneuvers seem less about protecting privacy or guarding data, and more about avoiding government regulation.

What can I do about it?

There’s not much you can do, outside of voicing your opinion online or complaining to your preferred form of government.

If you were among those affected by the privacy breach, your Facebook account will have a notification at the top of the news feed (see right) along with a button suggesting you change your privacy setting. This is probably a good a time as ever for all of us to review those.

Also, lawyers in the United States and the United Kingdom launched a pair of class-action lawsuits against Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and two other companies involved in the breach. So if you’d like to sign yourself up for a half decade of litigation… there’s that.

Then what does Facebook intend to do about it?

This is a Facebook policy issue/publicity problem. They built their platform allowing developers to access network data, and developers took full advantage. This wasn’t an oversight, this is what Facebook was built to do — give developers access to client data. That’s what developers pay Facebook for: access. From Facebook’s perspective the only real problem now is that people are getting upset over it.

Zuckerberg speaking to Meyer:

“Overall, this is a big breach of trust, and I’m sorry that it happened. The most important thing is to make sure that this doesn’t happen again going forward. So we’re taking a number of steps. We’re investigating every single app that had access to this data. We’re going to do audits on anyone who we find is doing something suspicious, and we’re going to tell people about that. We’ve taken steps to lock down the platform in the past, and we’re continuing to do that to just make sure it can’t happen again.”

Facebook has already suspended at least two more research companies (CubeYou and AggregateIQ) for misusing data from personality quizzes.

Later, speaking in front of congress Mr. Zuckerberg by way of a public apology stated:

“It’s not enough to just give people a voice. We need to make sure that people aren’t using it to harm other people or spread misinformation and not enough to give people control over their information, we need to make sure that the developers they share it with protect their information, too.”

He then admitted that Kogan had sold the information not just to Cambridge Analytica, but to a “handful” of other firms.

What’s the takeaway?

Um… Money.

Don’t act so surprised. There’s money to be made in big data and analytics, and companies coveting our personal data won’t stop looking for new ways to amass it.

And the hard truth is, bad press certainly won’t stop them from continuing on their mission to get their hands on our private information. If anything’s truly been brought to light in this whole affair, it’s that our personal identifiers are increasingly valuable, and like anything valuable, we shouldn’t just leave them out where anyone can find them.

It’s been said many-times many-ways, but now, more than ever, we need to take responsibility for the information we leave online.

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