Facebook began life as a simple student directory called “Facemash.” Based on the ideas of then-Harvard students Mark Zuckerberg and his friends, the fledgling social media platform was quickly shutdown by school officials. The Sophomore minds of Facebook’s founders had failed to consider issues like security, copyright infringement, and privacy. The business model and technology driving Facebook has grown more sophisticated with the exponential growth of users, but it would seem Zuckerberg has never actually managed to master the implications of social media. Throughout the years, Facebook has largely been able to dodge the social implications of its business model by avoiding the legal consequences for thoughtlessly violating the privacy of users, but that might be changing with the so-called Cambridge Analytica Scandal and revelations that Facebook logged text and phone data from millions of users without their explicit consent.
The Cambridge Analytica Scandal revolves around the academic, commercial, and political use of data made accessible by Facebook’s existence and harvested from 50 million American Facebook users. Through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Global Science Research founder Aleksandr Kogan hired workers to install a Facebook app on their accounts, which gathered a large amount of data about these users and their friends. Kogan then built somewhere around 30 million psychological profiles for profit. By selling the data to Cambridge Analytica, which was formed by Strategic Communications Laboratories, Kogan violated Facebook’s terms of agreement. Although the potential use of this kind of information to influence public debate, including public opinion surrounding the Brexit Referendum and the 2016 US Presidential Election, is troubling, the real issue is the accessibility of the data, not necessarily how it is misuse.
Even if Kogan’s use of the Facebook data had been for academic purposes, as he implied, the fact he personally profited from his scholarly research is more or less irrelevant. All the fruits of academia will eventually enrich someone, someday. Similarly, Cambridge Analytica’s potential use of Facebook data to manipulate politics is just as disconcerting as any other use of the data. Social engineering is problematic, whether or not it is political in nature, especially when it is motivated by special interests. When it comes to public perception and cultural views, those who control knowledge have always had the power to abuse that knowledge for their own gains, even if that knowledge is acquired to help society. Social media platforms like Facebook have amplified the ability of those who use knowledge as tools and weapons to gather much more of that information than would have been possible without social media.
In discussing privacy issues surrounding law enforcement, the term “meta-data” has emerged as an important focal point. It has been used by the NSA to circumvent the question of privacy. Because meta-data does not include so-called contextual data, proponents of its use have argued privacy is somehow a given. Despite its innocent sounding name, meta-data can be used by skilled analysts to profile the very personality and thinking of an individual, or group of individuals. Knowing what kind of content someone is viewing online gives far more insight into the personality, lifestyle, and behavior of someone than sifting through massive amount of personal content. Content cannot be analyzed en mass unless it is broken down into data points, i.e. meta-data. With meta-data in hand, an individual can be profiled then specific content can be lawfully acquired in order to finish a profile or model of the person, which can be used to predict then manipulate thought and behavior.
Not only are profiling methodologies useful for national security purposes, they are particularly useful when it comes to political and economic concerns. By gathering information on activities like texting, phone calls, and user relationships, entities like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook were actually collecting meta-data. It just so happens that Cambridge Analytica was trying to use the data it was collecting for political gains and Facebook was trying to use the data it was collecting exclusively for financial gains, but the common denominator is their collection of meta-data. In truth, the personal information of all people can be gleaned through any variety of methods and observations given enough time and effort. It is, however, the ability to easily connect bits and piece of data that makes the personal information on social media platforms both useful and dangerous. Connecting the dots between the kind of contextual data and metadata made available simply through the use of Facebook is what makes Facebook an information goldmine and hazard.
The only way for Facebook to coexist with a reasonable right to privacy is to concentrate on how Facebook and third parties connect the dots between meta-data, i.e. how they profile. Facebook is, of course, only an example of an information technology platform that threatens any reasonable right to privacy. Attempts to curtail the privacy concerns surrounding Facebook must, therefore, focus on efforts to prevent all businesses, governments, and other entities from capitalizing on personal meta-data. This entails efforts to ban the retention of seemingly inconsequential personal data, but also requires a new outlook on how and what data can be mined, stored, and utilized. Obviously, ensuring a reasonable expectation of privacy will not be easy, or free of cost, in the information age nor are their any straightforward answers, but the effort starts with reconsidering the true threat to privacy.
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