I read an interesting quote over the weekend. To paraphrase, it said that if someone built a massive data gathering system a couple of decades ago, it would be called a surveillance operation. Today, it’s called social media. What we now know is that a data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, harvested data from about 50 million Facebook profiles and used their analysis to predict how they would vote and to craft messages that would influence what they would do at the ballot box during the 2016 US Presidential election. The issues here are significant and go to the heart of how data is used.
On Friday, Facebook issued a statement saying Cambridge Analytica was suspended from their platform because they “violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica”.
That app, “thisisyourdigitallife,” offered a personality prediction, and billed itself on Facebook as “a research app used by psychologists”. The data collected by the app’s developer, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, was meant to be deleted but was passed on to Christopher Wylie from Eunoia Technologies – another data analytics firm. This was a violation of Facebook’s rules.
One reporter, Amir Efrati, noted that by making the announcement on Friday afternoon, the social media heavyweight was trying to get ahead of the news cycle. Efrati said “May seem like a small thing to non-reporters but Facebook loses credibility by issuing a Friday night press release to “front-run” publications that were set to publish negative articles about its platform. If you want us to become more suspicious, mission accomplished”.
There’s a fine line here and it’s one we all need to be aware of. Facebook is saying the use of personal data from Facebook profiles was accessed in violation of their terms and conditions. This is the offence that has led to the suspension of Cambridge Analytica and their parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) from Facebook. They are not categorising this as a data breach saying “The claim that this is a data breach is completely false. Aleksandr Kogan requested and gained access to information from users who chose to sign up to his app, and everyone involved gave their consent. People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked”.
In fact, Facebook threatened to sue The Guardian for calling it a breach.
Interestingly, former Trump confidant and campaign ally Steve Bannon was a vice-president at Cambridge Analtica.
Now, it would be easy to go down the rabbit hole of political intrigue and the suggestions of electoral misconduct that some are investigating. But there’s another important issue here. Many of us give up a lot of information on social media. We share photos, birthdays, contact information travel plans and more. And we share news stories that are interest to us. We complete silly quizzes and pass on jokes and funny memes. All that data, if accessed by companies like Cambridge Analytica, can be used to paint a fairly complete picture of our lives and allow someone to understand how we will behave in particular situation and perhaps even influence us.
There’s a lot of good that comes from social media. It’s a way for people to connect or reconnect with each other. It can be a source of news and other useful information. And it can be fun. But, like many things, it have a dark side if misused.
Those quizzes which get passed around can provide companies with access to a subset of your data that can be valuable. I’m guilty of sometimes taking those quizzes as they can be a good laugh. But it’s important to pay attention to what data they access. In the case of “thisisyourdigitallife”, people who took the quiz accepted that the app would collect some profile information – although they certainly didn’t sign on for the later leaking of their data.
While Facebook doesn’t consider this misuse of data a breach of their systems – and by their definition that’s a reasonable assertion – it was certainly a breakdown in the trust between the platform and its users. As many people have noted, this is also a case of semantics – it might not be a breach from Facebook’s perspective but the use of personal data without consent or for purposes we were not aware of is the very definition of being breached if you’re on the other side of the incident.
The maxim that “If the product is free, then you are the product” seems to hold true. Facebook might have started with the best of intentions, as a way for people to connect (or for Mark Zuckerberg to meet girls at college if “The Social Network” was accurate) but it has evolved into something far larger and more powerful. It is, perhaps, the most comprehensive surveillance and information capture tool every conceived.