Cambridge Analytica & The Future of Facebook: Is our data still our data?

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Facebook, every time you sign in it starts.

One of the hallmark achievements of our century, this segway into a new evolutionary age of connectivity; designed to be a banner of equality to distance us from the imbalance of power. Every post to your status, you’re continuing the excavation into this new wonderland, while you lean back in your chair wondering where this rabbit hole leads.

The creation of organic social communities, digital frontiers for pioneer developers to flourish with little hindsight paid outside the family researcher. Each update would shift the parameters of modern society. Their intent became their mission, prophesied as higher purpose, one of equal footing. The sole responsibility of a users’ personal data- in many cases, one’s livelihood- was left, cradling upon a bridge of trust. And for many, that expectation was good enough.

The unmarked conquest of American capitalism accumulated inside the smokescreen amidst the new toymakers’ workshop. The original purpose lost amidst the obsession for connection. And the worst of it- the warning signs have been present all along, embedded in the fine print for anyone who cared to look.

In a memo addressed in June 2016 to fellow board members at Facebook, Vice President Andrew Bosworth relayed a statement far gone from the original benign aspirations of a group of college kids making a platform in their dorm room.  

Bosworth was quoted as saying, “So we connect more people. That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools” His rumination did not stop there, “And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good. It is perhaps the only area where the metrics do tell the true story as far as we are concerned. That isn’t something we are doing for ourselves. Or for our stock price (ha!). It is literally just what we do. We connect people. Period.”

The firestorm over Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) scornful acquisition of an estimated 87 million Facebook users personal data has shifted focus to the tech giant in a way that has not happened before. As further layers are peeled back, the walls surrounding the tech giants – not just Facebook – have started to crumble with a hail of scrutiny battering upon the doors – the barbarians are indeed at their gates.

CA CEO Alexander Nix. Photo from CA YouTube Channel

As the investigations into the CA scandal unfolds, many wonder- how could they obtain this information so easily – all while under the radar?

In response, Facebook desperately pushed to distance itself from CA, suspending the firm’s Facebook access and labeling them and their affiliates, as “rogue third parties”. They have been drawn up as the villains who took advantage of the helpless social network and their users. Nonetheless, several whistleblowers have since come forward, including ex-Facebook managers and former CA staff, illustrating a different story; one of deep negligence and malfeasance by both parties.

Since previous campaigns have knowingly used similar microtargeting techniques, CA has become a red herring, however. A diversion best left in the backdrop of growing national outrage over the protection of users’ personal data.

Jason Arnold, an Associate Professor of Political Science at VCU who spoke with RVA Mag about this issue summed up Facebook’s initial response:

Facebook is either lying or naive in saying that it cannot be responsible for what happens to datasets once it sells them to outsiders like the Cambridge [Analytica] researcher.

What once stood as the road to connecting the world now rests a dwindling bridge. The public has now been presented with the actual state of data mining and usage. Facebook’s original obsession with connectivity has turned decidedly toxic, catching the eyes of lawmakers and intelligence professionals who are still attempting to understand how platforms like Facebook influence events in real-terms.

“While companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google are great American success stories, so far I’ve been disappointed at how reluctant they have been to accept the fact that we are seeing the dark underbelly of social media,” said Virginia Senator Mark Warner, Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in articulating this challenge.

A growing body of evidence purports this to be a symptom of a widespread complication, a drop in the bucket to continual risks facing a society co-dependent to social media for relevance in a modern economy.  

“It is very unlikely that CA had something that was light years ahead of what competing firms were doing,” said Arnold. This is true, companies such as Experian and Acxiom have faced disablement following ties to ad-targeting. 

For instance, Graph API, the interface in which Facebook allows third-party apps to use your data, is at the center of this ethical uproar. It’s here where Facebook’s own data collection tools have encouraged the monetization of personal data with careless oversight. For proponents of electronic privacy, this is political transparency dozing at the wheel.

But it is also apparent there is plenty of blame to go around.

“I think we’re all to blame,” said Charlies Ajemian, chairman of Social Enterprise Alliance of Virginia (SEAVA). “I thought it was primitive, but definitely didn’t think people would hand over their information to marketers to use it on their own end. He went on to say that Facebook is also to blame, knowing that it was their responsibility to protect people’s data. “There can be a lot of great things about social networking that benefits the essential things, but it can also be used to other ends.’

Social media has become a necessity these days, much like a public utility. This necessity has also become very lucrative to marketers and consumers.

Most if not all businesses are deeply connected to social media, and the data scraped from the different platforms provides insight into what the public finds interesting. Whether through the messages we send, mentions of products we like, companies we follow – our online presence has become a modern-day currency and all E-Commerce runs on these metrics like fuel.

But what was not taken into account in these business models was something which coincides with its very foundation – the idea of progress and what that means in the context of 2018. Facebook has clearly underestimated its own tools and its own ideals. And perhaps without the proper oversight, many believe this problem will continue, leaving all of us codependent on social media in a precarious position.

“Facebook has proved they cannot handle this responsibility alone,” said Ajemian, “Social media is leading us towards a certain degree of social engineering and I don’t believe our current laws were created with this kind of attack in mind.”

In response to calls for reform, Facebook has taken an initiative to formulate a multi-stage plan for regaining composure, particularly in respect to the upcoming midterm elections. While their terms were technically updated in 2011 and later again in April 2014 to restrict data mining, loopholes have continued to be exploited, only to be realized in the past few weeks. This means the upcoming elections are likely still to be considered at risk. Nonetheless, for a company to weaponize illegitimate personal data mining demonstrates reasonable risks to the electoral process and democracy altogether.

Which has led some to believe regulation needs to come from government. “This is another strong indication of the need for Congress to quickly pass the Honest Ads Actto bring transparency and accountability to online political advertisements,” said Warner.

In direct response the CA scandal, Ajemian believes that greater transparency will be required. He has posited that Facebook could become an objective medium for the political arena.

“Facebook could build an objective continuity around candidates, offering data to the public to help have a better understanding of who a candidate is as a whole to help the electoral process,” he said. “Politicians run to win a position. Then it’s their duty to govern. We’ve gone too far into the campaigning side, it should be the best to govern not the best to win.”

Still, this doesn’t end with Facebook and remains an industry-wide problem. Data breaches happen, but it’s the response time that matters.

However, with Facebook, the problem remains complex since to “fix” their problem with data breaches they would need to build an entirely different platform to begin with. Some experts have speculated on new models for the tech giant, working searching for the sweet spot between privacy and data collection.

There’s a way you could use [Facebook] as a real solution for the world we’re moving in to. Facebook is valuable because of our identities, without us it’s nothing,” Ajemian said. “The real currency in the world is our attention. the better our attention is, the more we get paid.

In a review conducted by the Research Group COSIC out of Beligum, their analyst stated that Facebook should change its platform altogether – putting the power back into the hands of the user.

“In order to assist users and enhance transparency, we proposed a privacy scoring computation mechanism for the collateral information collection of third-party applications on Facebook,” said Iraklis Symeonidis, the lead researcher.  “The privacy score calculates the amount of the personal information of users that can be collected from such applications. Being able to raise awareness on personal information collection, it can support decisions and foster user control on personal data disclosure.”

In this regard, Facebook is not really a social network any more than an ad network. Letting the user take control of what information they want available for collection could be achieved, possibly a win-win for user and network. “You can’t maintain this model of selling our values to marketers,” said Ajemian.“What Facebook is doing is on steroids. It needs to change its model to empowering users. If only they worked to share the profits with the users, make them the partners. That would get people to participate voluntarily.”

A professor of journalism at VCU, Jeff South, stated alternatives to advertisement isn’t a new concept. “Restricting the use of our personal data on social media would greatly undercut the network’s appeal to advertisers,” he said. South added that “technological disruption” has put many media sources that relied on traditional methods of advertising back on a model that followed the subscription services of the 1830s.

Symeonidis remains skeptical about Facebook actually taking this level of initiative. “To be honest, I would be surprised if Facebook didn’t know about the analysis work. We have been publishing several articles since 2015 about Facebook and the third-party applications privacy issue,” he said in his analysis for COSIC.

The responsibility is not Facebook’s alone though, the public has a responsibility to bear some of this criticism too. “Our responsibility is to understand media literacy in the modern age. Take note of when people are blaming others, take a deep breath, and understand what they’re really saying. The way you approach something should not alienate people,” said Ajemian.

What has become clear in this debate is that the goals of each tech giants – not just Facebook – will constantly be in question moving forward. Their incomprehensibility to the layperson provides them a sense of ambiguity in how they represent their product to the public. Yet transparency should always take precedence, no matter the latest feature. And this bleeds into technical issues outside of the conversation over fixes to the platform, connecting to issues that should have never been present to begin with.

Warner got to the heart of the matter, implying regulations may be the unavoidable route. “We’re going to have to get this problem under control, and I’m not sure the companies are able to do it on their own. I don’t want to regulate these companies into oblivion, but I think it is time for them to accept responsibility for the potential misuse of their platforms and work with us to figure out the best way to prevent it.”

Whether Facebook decides to make a change for the better is little more than speculation. One distinction is for certain- the internet may have been for the user, but Facebook is still for its customers.

Who are the customers, and what are they trying to sell?

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