By David Gracey
Facebook is always making headlines, but the past few weeks it has been front page news for a very bad reason: it allowed one of its paying customers to access data from 50 million accounts. People are furious with the company, deleting the app from their phones and complaining of privacy violations.
Here’s what happened and how it affects you.
“When an app is free, YOU are the product.”
This was a quote I heard on the news this week from someone closely following the Facebook story. It struck me as a stark reminder that we live in a time when privacy is all but gone. Facebook has become a multi-billion dollar, Fortune 100 company in fewer than 20 years by giving away its product. But what is their product? In a word: ads. Facebook made 40 billion dollars last year selling advertising. Why are companies spending billions for targeted advertising? Because it works. Here’s how:
When you created your Facebook account, you provided information such as your age, race, gender, nationality, high school, college, and so on. This is basic data but important to marketers and advertisers. But here’s what else Facebook does: it builds a profile on you based on your preferences and behaviors. It analyzes what you “like,” what you spend time reading, news articles you like or forward, who your friends are (and what they do), which ads you read or click on, and so forth. It collects a mountain of data about you. You are the product!
Since there are over 2,000,000,000 (yes, 2 billion!) Facebook users, it can collect massive amounts of information about its user base. Facebook can, for instance, determine with a high probability of accuracy that a white female, aged 35-55, with a car payment exceeding $400 per month, living in the metro Atlanta area, is highly likely to purchase athleisure products exceeding $100. This profile was easily built by cross-referencing several databases, most of which Facebook owns internally. An athleisure company like Athleta would pay big money to have a targeted list of people to send electronic advertising.
Most people assume this sort of thing goes on all the time, which it does. So why is everyone upset? Enter Cambridge Analytica, a research firm whose clients are private businesses, governments, and political parties. In 2014, Cambridge developed a free app that was downloaded by 300,000 Facebooks users. It disguised what it really was: a profile-building tool. While the 300,000 Facebook users accessed the app, the app was able to access all of their friends’ Facebook profiles, to the tune of 50 million accounts.
Facebook found out about the “breach” and demanded that Cambridge formally certify that they had deleted all improperly acquired data. Cambridge said they had. But in 2016, this data was apparently still in the hands of Cambridge, potentially being sold by them. This is what got them in trouble and got their CEO fired.
How does this affect you? Probably not much. Just about all of your data is all over the internet. Be warned that everything you do on Facebook, Google, Twitter, and all the other sites are being monitored by some robot somewhere.
As much as it stinks, privacy is all but dead and has been for a long time. We are the product.