Ctrl: Facebook Data Crisis

Caio Brighenti, Maroon-News Staff

Introducing “Ctrl,” a new column covering tech, cyber security and modern innovation as we begin to understand the nuances of the digital age.  

If you’ve read any tech-related news this week, you’ve heard of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica debacle. For those who haven’t, I’ll give you a quick rundown of what I took away as the most important points in the story.

Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University, takes the credit (or blame, depending on whom you ask) for setting off this chain of events. In 2014 he published a Facebook app designed to be a “personality quiz” that collected data on users who took the quiz. It’s unclear exactly what kind of data the app collected, but one thing of note is that it also collected data on users’ “friends” on the platform. Using this tactic, Kogan accumulated data on 50 million Facebook users. While the collection of this data seems to have been legal, and allowed under Facebook guidelines, the subsequent selling of it to Cambridge Analytica (CA), a data-driven marketing company funded by Robert Mercer, certainly was not. After obtaining this data from Kogan, and likely plenty of other sources, they assisted in several political campaigns, including the Brexit campaign, as well as both Ted Cruz’s and Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns. 

Facebook eventually discovered Kogan’s breach of its data guidelines, and ordered the data be destroyed. However, the recent revelation that this data was not actually deleted has triggered a massive fiasco for Facebook. For some reason, the discovery that some users’ Facebook data had been improperly shared, despite being lawfully obtained, fueled massive reactions worldwide. Since the news broke on March 17, Facebook’s market capitalization has plunged nearly $75 billion (which, for reference, is more than Tesla’s total market capitalization), Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth has dropped $10 billion (more than three times Trump’s reported net worth), and both the U.S. and British governments have called for Zuckerberg to testify before them. Zuckerberg, likely motivated by fears of regulation, responded apologetically, promising to restrict data access to third party developers, and launching an investigation into all apps that accessed “large amounts of data.” 

The question I’m left with is why exactly are people so outraged. From a data standpoint, nothing revealed throughout this story has struck me as unprecedented or new. This isn’t the first time Facebook data has been used to target people in political campaigns. It’s well known Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign team used a strategy very similar to Kogan’s, implementing a third party Facebook app to collect data, and that hardly caused such a reaction. The major difference is that in Obama’s case the data was collected clearly for that purpose, while Kogan later broke Facebook guidelines by passing it on to CA. Is this outrage then caused by Kogan’s breach of Facebook’s data rules? I find that hard believe. Perhaps what we’re seeing then is complete naiveté as what kind of data gets collected on social media, and what it’s used for. 

Did you know Facebook is the second largest advertisement service, behind only Google? If you’re aware of the kind of dirt Facebook has on you, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s actually quite easy to get a copy of that data, and I did exactly that. After requesting an archive of my data, I had to wait 15 minutes or so, after which I was able to download everything I’d ever done on the platform compressed nicely into a gigabyte or so sized folder. In this folder I found every single thing I’ve ever liked, every message I’ve ever sent, every photo I’ve ever received, every IP address I’ve ever logged in from, and much more. Facebook has this data neatly stored on anyone who’s ever used the platform, a number that’s certainly in the billions, given they currently have over 2.2 billion monthly active users. Compared to that, the limited data CA obtained on 50 million users seems laughable, yet the chaos it sparked is anything but that. 

In this context, Zuckerberg’s apology campaign makes far more sense. It’s clear people care about their data, and react strongly if it falls into hands perceived as untrustworthy. It’s obvious then that Facebook has to do everything in its power to keep up the illusion of trust. Unfortunately for them, this illusion is starting to fade for many. The #DeleteFacebook movement started by one of the co-founders of WhatsApp, a messaging app bought out by Facebook for $21.8 billion, has gained plenty of traction, and made headlines after Elon Musk deleted both the Tesla and SpaceX Facebook pages in response to the movement. At this point you’d have to be a “dumb f*ck” to trust Zuckerberg with your data. That isn’t me speaking, it’s just what a 19-year-old Zuckerberg supposedly said when asked why the early adopters of Facebook trusted him with their data.

Contact Caio Brighenti at [email protected].