The Power of Data

What is Facebook?

In order for Facebook to be evaluated effectively, a brief summary is necessary. Facebook is a social media platform that allows for near limitless networking. Users must sign up for a free profile and are then able to share photos, videos and messages, both publicly and privately to those they have “friended”. It was originally created in 2004, by Mark Zuckerberg while enrolled at Harvard University. The initial intended user base was solely college students but by 2006, it shifted to anyone who claimed to be 13 years of age or older, with a valid email address. Facebook is currently the largest social media platform in the world, with approximately 2.38 billion monthly users worldwide according to statista.com. 

Facebook promotes communication, networking, social marketing and the discovery of nuanced insights. Facebook provides a smorgasbord of resources ranging from showing you what your 9th grade ex-girlfriend Vanessa did for 4th of July, to providing you with the latest and greatest business pages newsletter. While Facebook provides those who utilize it with undeniably convenient and useful assets, they are in turn allowed access to an abundance of their users’ personal information. As Uncle Ben famously said to Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility” and over the years, Facebook has been less than responsible. 

Scandals

Facebook has had countless scandals spanning over the last decade, primary predicated on their inability to effectively protect data privacy. These incidents have fallen at various places on the spectrum of severity but the truth of the matter is the frequency of these issues are indicative of a fundamentally flawed system. The three primary issues with Facebook and the way they handle user privacy are: Those who use the app willingly divulge a large amount of highly personal information, Facebook does not prioritize the safety of this information and lastly, third parties are actively attempting to attain user information. According to a Facebook data privacy scandal timeline provided by Tech Republic, the first known infraction occurred in 2005, a mere year after the app was launched. The scandal exposed researchers at MIT constructing a script which downloaded publicly posted information of 70,000+  Facebook users. Facebook’s failure to protect this data more comprehensively is one of their first missteps and certainly not their last. 

One of Facebook’s most recent and groundbreaking breaches of trust was brought to light on March 18th, by The New York Times, The Guardian and many other credible news sources. The articles covered a data mining site by the name of Cambridge Anayltica and their groundbreaking exploitation of 50 million Facebook profiles in order to gain an unfair advantage in the 2016 election. This was Facebook’s biggest breach of privacy ever.

What is Cambridge Anayltica?

In order to understand how Cambridge Anayltica’s piece fits into the puzzling 2016 election, we must answer the question of, what is Cambridge Anayltica? CA is described by the British daily newspaper, The Guardian, as being; a company that provides its services to political parties and businesses interested in shifting their public perception. Its headquarters are located in London and it was  originally created in 2013 as a deviation of another similar company called the SLC group. The way it performs its analysis is by acquiring large amounts of consumer data (from sites like Facebook), and cross referencing that with behavioural science in order to identify individuals they can target with specialized marketing techniques. 

The founder of Cambridge Anayltica, Alexander Nix, explained the purpose of his company as being “to address the vacuum in the US Republican political market”. He continued by stating, “The Democrats had ostensibly been leading the tech revolution, and data analytics and digital engagement were areas where Republicans had failed to catch up. We saw this as an opportunity”. The previous statements were an excerpt from Nix’s interview with the website Contagious, in September of 2012. The information provided by Nix helps us, the listeners, begin to further understand the motive driving CA’s actions.

In 2014, Aleksander Kogan created an app titled, “this is your digital life”. Around 270,000 individuals downloaded it and took personality quizzes revealing intimate information about themselves. At the time, Facebook allowed developers like Kogan to access information about Facebook users and their friends. Kogan harvested around 50 million users’ information and passed it along to Cambridge Analytica. This information was then used to target eligible voters through digital ads, model voter turnout and provide a compass for where Trump should travel to gain more support.

What Now?

If nothing else, this incident should be regarded as a lesson in the power of data. Through the use of relatively basic and vague information, a British data mining firm was able to greatly influence, if not dictate who became the next President of the United States. While it is unrealistic to expect everybody to delete Facebook, I do encourage those who are reading this article to be aware of the irresponsibility Facebook exhibits with your personal data. Next time a personality quiz about which Harry Potter character you are pops up on your timeline, think twice about taking it.

Sources:

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/
  2. https://www.techrepublic.com/article/facebook-data-privacy-scandal-a-cheat-sheet/
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/18/what-is-cambridge-analytica-firm-at-centre-of-facebook-data-breach
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-trump-campaign.html
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDR8qGmyEQg
  6. https://www.contagious.com/news-and-views/interview-alexander-nix

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