As is the trend for tech giants in recent years, Facebook has once again found itself in the spotlight following revelations around its data policies. But at a time when so much valuable personal data is so willingly handed to corporations, should we be surprised by their conduct?
Over the last few days, the Cambridge Analytica situation at Facebook HQ has exploded, going from vague controversy across the Pond, to a global outcry against data harvesting by the social media giant.
The latest furore to hit Facebook erupted when it emerged that Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal data from 50 million Facebook accounts in order to build their own system – one which was then used to sway the voting public one way or another. What’s more, in a leaked video, suspended Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix was caught alongside colleagues boasting about the company’s power to swing elections one way or another around the world.
Initially, the scandal revolved around the most recent US presidential campaign, but more recently, a whistleblower revealed Cambridge Analytica’s influence on 2014’s Scottish Independence Referendum. In short, personal data was being used in dangerous ways – all without the knowledge or consent of Facebook’s users.
The Tip of the Iceberg
Whilst Cambridge Analytica’s use of user data was kept from members of the public, it’s not entirely implausible that Facebook itself knew what was happening. That’s because this scandal – although only now gaining traction – originated back in 2015. Fast-forward to 2016, a journalist was walked through the Trump campaign office in San Antonio, where Cambridge Analytica and Facebook were noted as working alongside one another.
However, Cambridge Analytica’s unscrupulous business activities are only the tip of what is a sizeable iceberg. Over the last few years, members of the public have become more aware of how important their personal data is, as well as more perceptive around how it’s collected and used. Pulling on the Cambridge thread has led to revelations around what data Facebook is actually collecting without users’ knowledge.
As part of Facebook’s pledge to make its platform safer, the social media giant allows users to download an archive of all the data collected from them. As the recent media storm intensified, users found themselves curious. As Ars Technica reported, one such user discovered that Facebook had scraped detailed information about phone calls and SMS messages sent from his Android phone. Further users then reported the same situation on their own devices, opening Facebook up to further criticism.
Clouds Over Silicon Valley
The fallout of Facebook’s misstep has been one that has slowly unfurled since 2015. Only now – with GDPR imminent and Big Data seeping into the public consciousness – are they seeing a backlash to data practices which have been happening behind the scenes for years.
In Silicon Valley, there’s frustration and anger, with concerns rising that regulation will follow the controversy. Meanwhile, $60billion has been wiped off of Facebook’s valuation following calls to appear in front of federal representatives, social media users are parading the #deletefacebook hashtag, and influencers are making recommendations on how to completely erase Facebook profiles.
It’s clear, then, that people aren’t happy. But should we really be surprised by the scandal?
Share and Share Alike
It’s no secret that we live in a data-driven world – the importance of personal data has been made loud and clear by the introduction of new GDPR regulations replacing outdated data protection guidelines. Such data is used by businesses every day to market new products to us, recommend new friends or connections on social networking platforms, and to curate our internet experience.
Although there are calls for Facebook to explain its privacy policies and data collection practices, it should be noted that users understand what data is being offered up, and there are opportunities to understand this practice – as well as the aforementioned archive retrieval on offer.
Surprise vs Outrage
So, if we know what we’re getting into when we sign up for Facebook or install it to our phones, and we understand the power Facebook wields, and we know to take things we see on the platform with a pinch of salt, should we be surprised? Perhaps not. The more pressing question is whether we should be outraged – and the answer depends on your personal opinion.
In 2011, Facebook signed a consent decree with the F.T.C (Federal Trade Commission), vowing to protect its users’ data. Breaking this vow comes with a hefty fine, totalling $40,000 a day per violation, and yet if found guilty of doing so, the Silicon Valley giant could be brought to its knees.
It’s clear from Cambridge Analytica’s use of personal data that user information wasn’t protected as agreed, but questions remain as to whether or not there are ‘other’ Cambridge Analyticas out there, and whether or not it was Facebook’s oversight or collusion which saw user data harvested to such a degree.
With news that Zuckerberg won’t appear in front of UK MPs despite an invite to do so, it seems Facebook is willing to put up a fight in the face of allegations. The degree to which they have to fight, however, is dependent on both users and authorities, and both are waking up to the possible applications of personal data – and the power Facebook wields – in an increasingly-digital world.
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