The Price of Free
Facebook, the world’s largest social media company, is facing allegations from Congress and officials that it violated the users’ trust by allowing its massive amount of user data to fall into the hands of a third-party consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica. The allegations concern the improper use of the data Facebook has on its nearly 2 billion users worldwide, when it surfaced weeks ago that Cambridge Analytica had been holding onto a portion of said data that it had assured Facebook had been deleted. While part of the controversy surrounds the larger question of Cambridge’s ties to the Trump campaign during 2016, as well as Facebook’s unintended assistance in allowing Russian trolls to spread discord on its platform, those controversies will not be the target of this article.
The problem arose from a policy that Facebook had in place from 2007 to 2015, when the company provided tools and data to app developers, researchers and other entities to better equip their apps and software with a more complete picture on the users who download and utilize them. Due to privacy concerns, Facebook stopped this practice in 2015. However, Facebook found out later that year that a man working at the University of Cambridge, Aleksandr Kogan, had violated Facebook’s terms and conditions by sharing portions of Facebook’s data from his app to a company, Cambridge Analytica. While the company promised Facebook that it had deleted the relevant data, that turned out to not be true.
Facebook’s initial handling of the leak by the Observer, regarding the company’s breach, didn’t instill much confidence in the rest of the world, especially after it was found that Facebook threatened to sue the Observer if they leak the information. The company later backtracked, with a public apology by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg online and on multiple full page advertisements across the country. Ironically, one of the ads was put in the Observer, the very newspaper that Facebook threatened.
Zuckerberg promised to do better, with regulation changes regarding information given for advertising and data analytics. In addition, the company plans to investigate all of its partners and related app developers’ requests for information to see exactly where such instances of privacy violations might have occurred or may occur in the future.
For Union students, this revelation has far-reaching consequences for anyone who uses social media, searches on the Internet or purchased something online. Everyone who owns an Internet connected device has at multiple points in their life had data on them taken and stored by a plethora of different tech companies, with which they use to build an impressively detailed character map of the user. This information, while often used to build profiles to sell to targeted advertisers, is continuing to be used in other ways. While debatably nefarious in its own right, it isn’t outright damaging to the unsuspecting user. What is concerning is, as demonstrated by this aforementioned leak, what may happen when that information, through either hacking or violation of terms and conditions, comes into the hands of a company or organization that wants to use that data for determinal purposes.
These, and future news of hacks, leaks or illegal data transfers prove that the online world will continue to envelope more and more of our data. While many companies’ services are “free”, and almost essential to a college student’s life, it definitely pays to have a greater understanding of what information is taken where, lest we find ourselves blindsided by that information appearing where it’s least expected.
Jesse Shoghi is a junior studying computer science.