Who has to buy your personal data for selling it to be wrong?

By Ysabela Golden | 3/29/18 3:23am


It turns out the U.S. public doesn’t like it when you let shady political data firms who brag about having “a long history of working behind the scenes” harvest the personal data of 50 million people in order to predict voter behavior. At least, that’s what Mark Zuckerberg discovered when Facebook stocks dropped by 10 percent after just a week of controversy. 

Zuckerberg’s been pretty busy in the weeks following Britain’s Channel 4 News broadcast of the discoveries of a reporter who went undercover as a Sri Lankan businessman to investigate Cambridge Analytica, a charming organization that claimed to be able to discredit its political rivals by staging encounters with prostitutes or faking evidence of bribery. The organization also bought user data from the creator of a personality quiz app (and “research tool for psychologists”) that asked users for permission to access their Facebook information—and, notably, the data of their Facebook friends as well. Though Facebook says they told them to delete this information, and Cambridge Analytica claims to have complied with this demand, former Analytica employee Christopher Wylie alleges that instead they kept the data and used it to create psychological profiles of U.S. voters as part of their services for President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. 

Regardless of what Cambridge Analytica’s services to the Trump campaign actually entailed, Facebook has already suffered the consequences and is desperately trying to save face in the aftermath, the latest of which is revamping their privacy settings (an update which has been in the works for months, they swear). Whether Zuckerberg actually deserves to win our respect back, however, is another matter entirely—as is the question of whether he ever deserved it in the first place.

Considering that the cinematic depiction of Zuckerberg starting his social media empire by cheating his friend and cofounder won both three Oscars and significant media attention, I assume we were all aware of his propensity for betraying people for money off the bat and just mutually decided it wasn’t going to be predictive of his future behavior. That one’s on us, really. And in his defense, I bet all billionaires-to-be have lawyers advising them to abandon common decency to make as much money as possible. Most of them just don’t have critically acclaimed movies made about the experience. 

What isn’t on us is the fact that Facebook has been data mining us and selling our information to advertisers for years. Facebook accounts are free; Zuckerberg’s $61.3 billion net worth had to come from somewhere. Concerns about the extent to which Facebook is legally required to respect your privacy long outdate the 2016 election, and the need to constantly boost their revenues to meet shareholder expectations doesn’t motivate them to be more respectful than they have to be. Various features added over the years, from timelines to more in-depth profiles to “likes,” have given Facebook massive amounts of information about which demographics go where, watch which media, like which brands and, yes, have which political leanings. 

The idea that this information might have been sold in the name of politics instead of consumerism was the last straw for many Americans. Even “Fox & Friends”—whose target audience I would have assumed to be the most likely, had they been asked, to willingly give the Trump campaign the information in question—has broadcasted multiple segments critical of Facebook’s conduct and even advising viewers on how to take back their personal data.

My problem with this perspective, however, is that it implies that the current situation is somehow uncharacteristic of how we should expect Facebook to behave. This is Facebook. Their platform is uniquely capable of gathering information like this on a massive scale, and so much of that information has been collected since the site went public in 2006 that it’s honestly hard to believe this is the first time it's been used for something less innocuous than sponsored posts about scented moisturizer. Maybe Facebook won’t be found culpable for this particular disaster—that doesn’t mean they’ve been respecting your privacy, and it definitely doesn’t guarantee that they will in the future.

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