I’m not one to say I told you so (OK, maybe I am) but the recent Facebook scandal has illustrated the very concerns I have been sharing for years. Social networking has exploded in the past decade with people connecting and interacting on various platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and of course, Facebook, sharing their daily lives, their ideas, dreams, concerns, dinner plans, etc. During the whole process, cries of privacy and safety concerns have come from many corners since all of the sharing reveals data that criminals could use to target new victims. The obvious culprits are pedophiles, burglars, and identity thieves, but this latest controversy has identified the real danger: data mining. The data comes from not only the profiles users build but also from user activities online, such as those inane quizzes that come across your Facebook feed. I have warned people about taking these quizzes for years.
When anyone sets up a social media account, the site requires a lot of information that seems quite logical to build a profile. Name, email, phone number, and birth date seem like reasonable information to build a profile, so people readily give up this info. But data mining sites don’t stop there. They want more. The reason they want more is not [just] to make the site more usable, but to make more money. Social networking sites sell user data to various marketing firms to generate revenue that keeps the site running. Users get ads that are targeted to them based on the information they share on social media sites. The more data provided by the user, the more targeted that ad.
The profile is not the only way that data gets collected, user activity actually provides way more data for these firms. Online quizzes ask seemingly innocuous questions that generate tons of data. These quizzes offer to let the user know what the user’s color says about them, what super hero they would be, and what their name means in Elvish among other things, and people clamor to give up their private information. Not only do they willingly do this, they also give up access to their online friend’s profiles. The data mining firms are cleaning up with all the data they have available and the marketing firms are loving sending specific ads so they can charge more to the advertisers. All this comes from those innocuous social profiles.
Now the media is up in arms about how user data has been collected supposedly to effect the presidential election. First it was Russian collusion, now it is Cambridge Analytica that ruined the Clinton presidency that the media had prepared to celebrate. The real fact of the matter is that Cambridge Analytica did nothing more than any other data firm has been doing since the birth of the Internet. They collected data and sold that data.
Was Facebook complicit in this supposed breech of public trust? Yes and no. They created the platform that makes such interaction possible and they built the system that sells the data to pay for it. Did Mark Zuckerberg set out to ruin Hillary’s presidential chances? Of course not. That was just a bonus.
Now the internet’s social justice warriors are promoting the hashtag #deletefacebook to call on users to quit the social media giant as a form of punishment. These people think that since their data—that they happily gave up on their own—was used in a way that they don’t like, the site that collected that data must be shut down.
It is just another example of how society refuses to accept any personal responsibility for their actions. They gave up the data willingly. Once you give it up, what it is used for is no longer your concern. You don’t want Cambridge Analytica to sell your data, don’t take the stupid online quizzes.