Facebook is the villain and finally people know it.
About 250 pages of highly confidential documents and company emails that shed light on Facebook’s attitude towards its customers, were released by a British lawmaker this week. But before we dive into that, let’s take a step back and remember Facebook’s first big public scandal.
Last March, the New York Times, along with the Guardian and the Observer in London, uncovered documents proving that the political data firm Cambridge Analytica had improperly acquired data from Facebook. Aleksandr Kogan, a data scientist, had developed an app and given the user data information to Cambridge Analytica. Facebook allowed this app to not only collect data from the app users, but also their friends, resulting in Cambridge Analytica acquiring data from millions of different Facebook users.
The Trump campaign employed Cambridge Analytica in 2016 and it therefore has been painted as some dark ops firm that stole Americans’ privacy for the benefit of the highest paying conservative candidate, who then used it to steal victory from Hillary Clinton through manipulation, fraud, hacking and mystery.
While the people running Cambridge Analytica did seem on the shady side, and I certainly wouldn’t put my trust in them, they have been used as a scapegoat for Facebook’s unethical, hostile and underhanded behavior.
Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of app developers were using the features that Facebook itself created, to do precisely the same thing that Cambridge Analytica was doing. To be clear, there was no “hack” of Facebook. This kind of work is not rocket science, and in my opinion, everyone gave Cambridge Analytica way too much credit. They weren’t magicians. I promise.
If Cambridge Analytica had been a company that sold people refrigerators, or did anything unrelated to Donald Trump for that matter, no one would have cared about its data consumption. But Cambridge Analytica was hailed as the election usurper – Trump’s secret weapon in his battle for the White House.
Yes, Trump won. But he won against the most unpopular Democratic candidate in modern history, who was vying for a third Democratic term – something which has not been achieved since the 1940s. Furthermore, he won by a very slim margin and actually lost the popular vote. If Cambridge Analytica was really a bunch of election-rigging wizards, practicing their dark art of black box data mining, wouldn’t you have expected a more crushing defeat?
The government has had at least 10 years to get on top of big tech companies’ exploding growth and power, but so far they’ve been allowed to act with free rein.
What we really should have taken away from the Cambridge Analytica scandal last spring is that Facebook is the villain and we need to know more. And this week we’re learning yet again that we the public are in big trouble with not just Facebook, but all the other big companies that have troves of data on practically each and every one of us.
Despite repeatedly denying that Facebook sells its users’ data, the company emails released this week show that in fact it effectively did – that it leveraged our data to reward developers who spent a lot of money on the platform, and ice out its competitors, all the while making sure we, the users, never found out.
And let’s not kid ourselves that it’s just Facebook doing this. Five of the most valuable companies in the world today – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Google's parent company Alphabet – have all commodified our data and used it to take over their respective sectors.
What’s equally unsettling is our government’s response. The questions that senators asked Zuckerberg during his April hearing clearly showed how little they understand about the basic workings of his company. The government has had at least 10 years to get on top of big tech companies’ exploding growth and power, but so far they’ve been allowed to act with free rein.
Sure, we the consumers bear some of the responsibility. I certainly have freely given up my data to various apps, companies and websites. And boy do I love Amazon’s suggestions – it always seem to know just what I need! Advertising isn’t coercive. I know what I’m choosing to buy, just like I know what candidate I’m choosing to vote for. I’m not being tricked in either case.
But at the same time, these companies have been allowed to run amuck, and the laws haven’t been keeping up. For the entire Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook was fined a little over $600,000. Facebook makes that in less than 8 minutes.
I’m not so worried about Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t scare me. What terrifies me is the next villain, who has more nefarious end goals. If the government doesn’t get its act together and start creating and enforcing laws to regulate these powerful companies, we are in real trouble.
The leaked documents this week shouldn’t be a surprise, but they should be a wake-up call. We have become complacent with our personal privacy, myself included.
What’s scary isn’t the data violation, it’s who’s doing it. There will always be a Bond villain, but if James Bond doesn’t have Q giving him the technology that keeps him a few steps ahead of the villain, he may not escape alive one day.