Beyond the Facebook Data Privacy Scandal

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It’s a scandal of privacy, politics and an essential ingredient of business success — public trust.

Facebook is confronting a costly, embarrassing public relations debacle after revelations that Cambridge Analytica misused data from some 50 million users to try to influence elections. Among its marquee clients: President Donald Trump’s general election campaign.

But let’s be clear – despite what the mainstream media is trying to push, this is NOT about Donald Trump.

Back in 2012 the Obama campaign used Cambridge Analytica to harvest millions of data points from Facebook and other social networks as well. At the time that practice was applauded as ‘cutting edge political application of voter data’. The media said it was wonderful … until the other political party used it. Then it was cheating. In fact, Cambridge Analytica was heavily involved with the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom in 2016. Voter data is what drives campaigns in this hi-tech era.

While controversial, Cambridge Analytica was simply doing the job it was hired to do.

The scandal lies with Facebook’s method of collecting personal data from its users, and then extending that data collection through the ‘permissions’ the user grants to Facebook for collecting additional data from the user’s smartphones and computers.

“Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual that comes from Facebook’s data collection of its users. So we can model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.”

— Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, October 2016

Since the scandal broke there has been massive criticism of Facebook’s data collection practices. Many major tech users have deleted their Facebook accounts, including SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk. In doing so, he joined a growing chorus of tech leaders calling for people to abandon Mark Zuckerberg’s social network.

And now a company known as much for reminders of a long-lost friend’s birthday and documentation of acquaintances’ every whim is grappling with outrage— and the loss of confidence.

“I trust a company until they give me a reason not to trust them,” said Joseph Holt, who teaches business ethics at the University of Notre Dame. “And Facebook has increasingly given me reasons not to trust them.”

Losing that trust would be a disaster, not just for Facebook, but for any Silicon Valley company that relies on users to open up their private lives.

The amount of trust placed in technology has soared. Cars sync with cell phones. Refrigerators know when there’s no more milk and reorder it. We can remotely turn on our A/C & heating systems and lock or unlock our doors. Virtual assistants field answers to nearly any inane question.

And with each turn of the steering wheel, sip of milk or request for dinner reservations, a trail of digital crumbs is left for companies to collect, analyze and profit off.

The public has largely been willing to accept the trade-off, knowing in exchange for giving up some data, Netflix will offer spot-on show suggestions, Amazon will prompt a diaper order and Google will figure out what to search before a user finishes typing it.

Every time a person shops online or at a store, phone numbers or email addresses can be linked to other databases that may have location data, home addresses and more. Voting records, job history, credit scores (remember the Equifax hack?) are constantly mixed, matched and traded by companies in ways regulators haven’t caught up with.

Has Facebook been hurt by the scandal?

For Facebook, whose power and value are built on being so ever-present in people’s lives, the impact has been immediate — its share price is down nearly 16 percent since the scandal broke March 16.

While some 6% of disenchanted Facebook users have deactivated their accounts (an astonishing number), others point out that getting rid of Facebook can be hard to do. If a credit card company or an airline’s data is breached, it’s easy enough to switch allegiances. But for most of Facebook’s 2 billion users there’s no real substitute, says Aaron Gordon, a partner at Schwartz Media Strategies, a Miami-based public relations and crisis management firm.

“Like drivers slowing down on a roadway to view a crash because they want to see what happened, people are slowing their lives to see what’s happening on Facebook. Simply put, it’s a time-thief”, says Gordon. “It’s a lot harder to just up and leave,” he says. “So you go to Twitter or Instagram? They are time-thieves as well.”

By the way, WhatsApp and Instagram are owned by Facebook and are part of the data collection practice.

But let’s put aside Instagram, WhatsApp and other Facebook products for a minute. Facebook has built the world’s biggest social network. But that’s not what they sell. You’ve probably heard the internet saying “if a product is free, it means that you are the product.”

And it’s particularly true in this case because Facebook is the world’s second biggest advertising company in the world behind Google. During the last quarter of 2017, Facebook reported $12.97 billion in revenue, including $12.78 billion from ads.

That’s 98.5 percent of Facebook’s revenue coming from ads.

So Facebook has been collecting as much personal data about you as possible — it’s all about showing you the best ad. The company knows your interests, what you buy, where you go and who you’re sleeping with.

You can’t hide from Facebook

Facebook’s terms and conditions are a giant lie. They are purposely misleading, too long and too broad. So you can’t just read the company’s terms of service and understand what it knows about you.

That’s why some people have been downloading their Facebook data to see just what Facebook has on them. You can do it too, it’s quite easy. Just head over to your Facebook settings and click the tiny link that says “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”

In that archive file, you’ll find your photos, your posts, your events, etc. But if you keep digging, you’ll also find your private messages on Messenger (by default, nothing is encrypted).

And if you keep digging a bit more, chances are you’ll also find your entire address book and even metadata about your SMS messages and phone calls.

All of this is by design and you agreed to it. Facebook has unified terms of service and share user data across all its apps and services (except WhatsApp data is private in Europe … for now). So if you follow a clothing brand on Instagram, you will see an ad from that brand on Facebook.

Messaging apps are privacy traps

But Facebook has also been using this trick quite a lot with Messenger. You might not remember, but the on-boarding experience on Messenger is really aggressive.

On your smartphone, you can let Messenger manage your SMS messages. Of course, you guessed it; Facebook uploads all your metadata. Facebook knows who you’re texting, when, how often.

Even if you disable it later, Facebook will keep this data for later reference.

But Facebook doesn’t stop there. The company knows a lot more about you than what you can find in your downloaded archive. The company asks you to share your location with their servers. The company tracks your web history using embedded JavaScript, meaning they record and resell for their profit all the websites you visit.

Beyond Facebook

The next time an app asks you to share your address book, there’s a 99-percent chance that this app is going to mine your address book to get new users, spam your friends, improve ad targeting and sell email addresses to marketing companies.

WATCH:

People just don’t understand, much less read the permissions we grant to apps to harvest our personal and private data.

Many of the misleading things that are currently happening at Facebook will have to change. Data collection should be minimized to essential features. And Facebook will have to explain why it needs all this data to its users.

You can’t be invisible on the internet, but you have to be conscious about what’s happening behind your back. Every time a company asks you to tap OK, think about what’s behind this popup.

You can’t say that nobody told you.

Be Safe – Backup Your Data Regularly!

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