Why Facebooks data scandal should scare you and what to do about it


Facebook is in hot water after Cambridge Analytica managed to scrape the personal data of 50 million users.

JOHANNESBURG - It should come as no surprise really. We’ve all known for a long time that whatever we put on social media is being used for targeted advertising.

And yet, when the news broke that the data of 50 million Facebook users was taken without their knowledge, and used for psychological manipulation, we were horrified. Well, some of us.

How did it happen? Why did Facebook not protect us?

In 2014, the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica was looking to up its game and get a contract to work on the US election campaign. In order to get more accurate profiles of potential voters, it needed more data. And where better to go than Facebook with its billion users?

The company offered users money to take a personality quiz on Facebook, called “thisisyourdigitallife”, the same kind of third-party app so many of my friends use to determine their Hobbit name or to see what they’d look like as someone of a different gender.

About 270,000 people installed the app, which then “scraped” information from their Facebook profiles, as well as detailed information from their friends’ profiles, their friends who did NOT give permission.

READ: App developer says he is scapegoat in Facebook scandal

It accessed the profiles of about 50 million people. Of the 50 million, about 30 million contained the kind of personal information Cambridge Analytica was dying to lay its hands on. 

The research showed the company could extract the following psychometric information from your Facebook posts: fair-mindedness, conscientiousness, political views, self-disclosure, and “sensational interests” which include militarism (whether you like weapons including guns), violent occultism (drugs, black magic), intellectual activities (music, travel, interest in the environment), credulousness (the paranormal, aliens), wholesome interests (camping, gardening, hiking).

Once this data is accumulated, it can be used to predict things like where a politician should go to campaign, where he or she would be well-received, what to say to appeal to certain groups of people.

This is insidious psychological manipulation of the most frightening and sickening kind.

READ: India warns against social media data misuse ahead of elections

As New York Times writer, Zeynep Tufekci, explains, there is no way for someone to consent to something like this in a meaningful way. Most people don&39;t realise exactly what they&39;re consenting to.

“Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you had explicitly consented to turn over your Facebook data to another company. Do you keep up with the latest academic research on computational inference? Did you know that algorithms now do a pretty good job of inferring a person’s personality traits, sexual orientation, political views, mental health status, substance abuse history and more just from his or her Facebook ‘likes’ — and that there are new applications of this data being discovered every day?

“Given this confusing and rapidly changing state of affairs about what the data may reveal and how it may be used, consent to ongoing and extensive data collection can be neither fully informed nor truly consensual — especially since it is practically irrevocable (emphasis added).”

South Africans shouldn’t be complacent and think this is limited to the Trump election campaign or the Brexit referendum. Cambridge Analytica also helped Uhuru Kenyatta win yet another term in Kenya’s 2017 presidential election. What’s to prevent Cambridge Analytica, or another company, from pulling the same trick during the 2019 elections campaign here in South Africa?

So, how do we protect ourselves?

You could leave Facebook completely. But if that seems too extreme, the first step would be to stop doing these silly tests and quizzes, giving third parties access to your and your friends’ private information.

But what about the ones that are currently harvesting your data?

Facebook does allow you to stop third parties from accessing your data completely by blocking all such apps. Note, this will stop apps and games from Farmville to Instagram, and you won’t be able to log into any sites using your Facebook login details (which is a silly security risk anyway).

To do this go to the "Settings" menu on Facebook and click on “Apps”. From there, click the "Edit" button under "Apps, Websites and Plugins." 

Click "Disable Platform."

If you’d still like some apps to be able to access your information, like Instagram, or there are some apps, like a news website, you still want to use, you can click the edit icon for each third-party app that and untick the information you don&39;t want it to have. 

You can also stop your friends&39; apps from gaining access to your information. From the same page, click "Edit" under "Apps Others Use." Then uncheck the information you&39;re not willing to share. 

During this process, I discovered a bunch of apps I barely remember giving permission to when I first joined Facebook, and I simply deleted them completely. 

Cambridge Analytica is now under investigation in the UK and the US, while authorities are also calling on Facebook to be held accountable as well. Cambridge Analytica might have gained the Facebook data through dubious means, but Facebook never checked the assertion that the information was going to be used for academic research only.

What this saga proves is that Silicon Valley does not care about you, no matter what Mark Zuckerberg might say. We, the users, should not fool ourselves into thinking we are Facebook’s customers; we are its product and advertisers (and unscrupulous third-party companies) are its clients.

Sources: The New York Times, The Guardian, Electronic Frontier Foundation