The recent Facebook data breach by data mining and analysis firm Cambridge Analytica is believed to be the largest in Facebook history. But are we really so shocked that this could have happened? Whenever we use a Facebook app, take a Facebook quiz, or play a Facebook game, we’re advised that Facebook is accessing some of our personal information. We don’t know, of course, that data firms like Cambridge Analytica might unethically use the information we consent to share with Facebook, but perhaps we should start to assume that anything could happen to our data once we let it go into the ether.
According to whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica contractor, Cambridge Analytica used personal information from the Facebook profiles of over 50 million people without their permission. Facebook users who took a personality quiz entered data into a third-party app. The app not only allowed Cambridge Analytica access to data about those users, it also allowed them access to data about the users’ Facebook friends. Cambridge Analytica then built a powerful software application to predict and influence choices at the ballot box by targeting political advertising to those users during the Trump presidential campaign.
Wylie said, “This is based on the idea of informational dominance. The idea that if you can capture every channel of information about a person, and then change the content around them, you can change their perception of what’s actually happening.”
Thought we don’t know for sure how, or if, the Cambridge Analytica data breach impacted the way our election turned out, we know that the same technology that is used for selling items and services on Facebook was used to target people for political ads. According to Wylie, Cambridge Analytica used the data to create profiling algorithms that allowed them to learn more about the mental vulnerabilities of users. Cambridge Analytica then “mapped out ways to inject information into various streams of content onllne, so that people (would) begin to see things all over the place that may or may not have been true.” This went further than simple political advertising, in that it delivered fake news messages based on personality profiles.
Cambridge Analytica is a U.K. company. Though European data access and privacy laws are much stricter than those in the United States, Cambridge Analytica took advantage of the lack of legal protection of American data. We do have specific laws, such as HIPAA, that protect certain types of data, but, unlike Europe, we don’t have a general law that protects our data in all situations, and it’s much more difficult to know what data about us is gathered.
Facebook claims that its business model holds protection of users’ privacy as paramount. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co-founder, chairman, and CEO, has apologized to users, and has suspended Cambridge Analytica from Facebook. Zuckerberg stated, “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you.”
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, said, “We know this was a major violation of people’s trust and I deeply regret we didn’t do enough to deal with it.”
But will deleting your Facebook account protect you? Not really, says David Carroll, Associate Professor of Media Design at the Parsons School. “You’re only reducing the number of ways data is collected about you.”
Still, Carroll offers these suggestions for Facebook users:
- Limit the amount of info you share with social networks
- Limit the browser you use for your social network
- Take the applications off your phone.
- Don’t share your exact name, location, or age
We should always assume that someone, somewhere, is harvesting our data. This reaches beyond Facebook and Cambridge Analytica – it’s a demonstration of how easily companies can target and manipulate us by getting hold of our data.
Facebook Suspends Data Firm Tied to Trump Campaign | CBS News [2018-03-17]
Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Says Company Worked With Corey Lewandowski & Steve Bannon | TODAY [2018-03-19]