Deleting your account is a micro-rebellion. Let’s talk big picture.
As the story goes, the political data firm Cambridge Analytica was able to conduct “unprecedented data harvesting” through the use of Facebook and a third party’s personality quiz. The survey in question was deployed by a British research company called GSR for academic purposes in line with Facebook’s terms of service, yet the data was later acquired by Cambridge Analytica and stored on their servers. In the end, it was said to have affected more than 51.3 million Facebook users.
Keep in mind that Cambridge Analytica already has a treasure trove of data on almost every American citizen. Through their extensive personality profiles, the company offers politicians the service of “psychographic targeting” based on personality types. It’s a business model called “surveillance capitalism,” in which the goal of the company is to collect, share and exploit user data. Of course, you might be asking, if that’s the case, why doesn’t Facebook have a safeguard in place to protect users from this kind of data poaching, or to maintain their users’ privacy? Why aren’t they trying to stop the Cambridge Analyticas of the world?
The short answer: it’d be bad for business. Facebook is ultimately playing the same game as Cambridge Analytica, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a surveillance capitalist. As for you? When you’re playing in his world, you have no privacy.
Whatever it is, it’s not a data breach or hack
For Big Data and Mega Companies, bad PR is the kiss of death, and it’s usually accompanied by the words “breach” and “hack.” Perhaps that’s why Facebook’s vice president, Andrew Bosworth, was quick to tweet out the following regarding Cambridge Analytica once the public began to lose trust:
This was unequivocally not a data breach. People chose to share their data with third party apps and if those third party apps did not follow the data agreements with us/users it is a violation. no systems were infiltrated, no passwords or information were stolen or hacked.
— Boz (@boztank) March 17, 2018
Unfortunately, this leads to more questions: How was Cambridge Analytica able to gain access to so much user data anyway? Why doesn’t Facebook have measures in place, such as encryption or other cyber crime preventative measures? Why was it so easy for this shell company, created by the British firm Strategic Communications Laboratories, to get their hands on so much information and store it on their own servers without so much as hacking into Facebook’s system or user accounts?
Nobody hacked Facebook, because no one had to. The company’s business model depends on mining its platform for user data and selling it to the highest bidder. And no one was after a user’s password because that’s not valuable, no more than a hotel key is valuable. No one cares how you get in — they want the data on how you behave once you’ve entered the room hosting the narcissistic orgy. Because that information is the new gold, and hundreds of thousands of companies are in the market to both extract and exploit this personal user information online and off. Welcome to the worldwide web of corporate surveillance.
Social Media: The Modern Addiction
When you signed up for Facebook, you built a user profile — who you are, where you live, your relationship status, where you go to school, where you work, what activities you enjoy, and plenty of photos of yourself from a range of locations. Then you uploaded your address book to find friends and connect. Instantly you shared with Facebook every piece of data you possessed about your friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances. This could be anything from their phone number, photos and physical address to their work email and location. And using this information, Facebook then searched its own database for any and all connections that might tie you and everyone you know to other users already onboard.
Next you went through and liked or followed pages that best suited your interests, from certain news outlets and magazines to TV shows and books. Your feed began to share additional information with you, which you could then choose to like or comment on. And the more you engaged, the more connections you made. The more connections you made, the larger your community. And the larger your community and network, the more time you spent on Facebook. It then became a bank for all your most precious mementos: messages from college, videos from spring break, and cherished photos of your children growing up. Naturally you don’t want to lose everything you’ve stored in this digital scrapbook, and you don’t want to disconnect to the point that you no longer remember birthdays, or miss out on images of your friends as they live across the world. You don’t want to lose your personal history — all your chats, inside jokes, and answers to goofy quizzes.
Then again, Facebook is constantly hounding you to come back. Log back in. Share something. Your followers miss you. Get your coworkers and friends to join. What about Grandma? Wouldn’t she like to see pictures of the baby? Wouldn’t Grandpa enjoy knowing what your son just made in science class, or joking around with you about sports? Wouldn’t you love to share your favorite music or, better yet, a live video of the last concert you went to? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe you’re tired of Facebook and its constant demands for your attention. Maybe you want to leave or just make the switch to Instagram, but then, that’s owned by Facebook too. OK, maybe to WhatsApp — that’s encrypted, right? Again, owned by Facebook. Twitter? No better. Google Plus? God help us. Gab? I don’t know yet. Vero? Maybe…
Why is it so easy to stay, and so unbelievably difficult to leave?
That’s by design.
If You Can’t See the Product, You Are the Product
Now, in Facebook’s defense, they didn’t come up with the surveillance capitalist business model. That was Google. In the race to become the leading search engine in the world, Google discovered that the data they gathered could actually be used to predict what people wanted. Even better, that information could be used to make advertising more effective by targeting certain customers with specific messaging. And since Google was offering users a superior search engine for free, why not sell their data to the highest bidder? Gotta turn a profit, right?
But what companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google and Amazon won’t tell you is that their product isn’t content or even advertising. What they’re selling — and making a fortune on — is, well, their surveillance of you. These companies literally watch what you do, monitor what you click on, document your choices, identify patterns, and then predict your future behavior, such as what you might purchase if it came across your feed. Then, using artificial intelligence and machine learning, these companies help to create personalized and highly targeted advertising to persuade you toward a certain direction (preferably the direction that pays the most). And every time you log in, you basically enable these organizations to test what works and what doesn’t, so that they can perfect their model. You are the cash crop, and you exist to be harvested. And the more psychological vulnerabilities the machines can exploit, the bigger the return on investment.
It’s a business model that Harvard academic Shoshanna Zuboff named “surveillance capitalism” in 2015. And through this model, many companies that have burrowed their way into your life are making money on your engagement, which you’re providing for free or, at the very least, at a discount. Consider Amazon. What’s more valuable to them? Your purchasing history and user data, or used books? A commission off a $0.99 e-book, or your personal preferences for every material good under the sun? Jeff Bezos isn’t a bookseller. He’s in the business of information, and he’s the richest guy in town.
Of course, to keep you engaged, these companies must offer attractive bait. Facebook offers connection and the emotional appeal of shared memories. Amazon offers one-click shopping with free shipping for everything from dusty books to organic groceries. LinkedIn provides a way to connect with employers and find jobs. Google offers an entire suite of products — for free — that make doing business and organizing your life easier. And Twitter connects you with journalists, thinkers and nonthinkers alike, whether they’re correct in their assumptions or terribly wrong.
Then again, it’s not just Twitter and co. that you should be concerned about. Your smartphone is literally a tracking device, providing your real-time location to God knows who. Your Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple Home Pods are as Orwellian as you can get.
Even your Smart TVs and bathroom scales are ultimately spying on you if they’re connected to the internet. And by 2020, the Internet of Things is expected to balloon up to 25 billion objects — all able to collect personal data that can be hacked, mined and used against you. These devices and platforms probably know more about you than you even know about yourself, especially when paired with artificial intelligence capabilities. So what’s the answer?
Yeah, Privacy? That’s Bad for Business
If you think it’s bad that certain tech companies have your data, that’s not even the half of it. It’s “industry standard” for these same companies to hand over their user data to the NSA and other government agencies. In fact, Jeff Bezos is notoriously in bed with the CIA. And as it turns out, surveillance capitalism and the state’s desire to control populations at scale go hand in hand. This is why regulations and laws are the enemy of this business model, according to Shoshanna Zuboff. She argues that these entities thrive in a lawless space, which is why Microsoft and Google, archenemies for 20 years, recently decided to bury the hatchet and stop suing each other over intellectual property. It’s better for them to compete in the marketplace than get the government involved more than they already are…which isn’t much.
In 2016 the European Court of Justice ruled that “indiscriminate communications data retention is incompatible with a free and democratic society.” Yet the United States government has done little on this issue, despite the fact that in 2017 the former head of growth at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, declared that “we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” Others have warned that we are “teetering on the edge of a data dystopia,” and even former investors of Facebook have declared that “in pursuit of greater profits [and] in order to maximize its share of human attention, Facebook employed techniques designed to create an addiction to its platform.” Clearly, it’s wrong to assume these big data giants can possibly govern themselves.
Speaking of responsibility, what was Facebook’s initial response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal? In the months leading to the story breaking, Zuckerberg sold millions of his shares in the company. Supposedly these were scheduled sales to benefit the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, which he founded with his wife. However, these early actions saved him millions of dollars in losses before the scandal broke and Facebook’s stock value plummeted. Furthermore, the company politely asked Cambridge Analytica to delete GSR-sourced material well before they alerted the 51.3 million users left vulnerable by third-party data harvesting. They waited two years, in fact. Nor has the company suggested reform in how they plan to store or protect user data moving forward. Instead, Zuckerberg, in the latest of his long line of apologies over the years, pleaded with his user base, stating that Facebook has “a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you.” But does anything exist in the U.S. to monitor things like this, or to even hold Facebook and others accountable?
Why, yes, the Federal Trade Commission is the main federal agency that governs the tech industry and protects consumers in terms of privacy, antitrust laws and cybersecurity. That would be the agency to approach for regulating the world of surveillance capitalism and putting a little power back into the hands of the people. The only problem? It’s not even staffed. Why? Despite the fact that the Senate Commerce Committee approved the four commissioners currently waiting in the wings, a key member of the Senate is holding them up. Then again, he thinks Facebook is a “very positive force” that will police itself since it’s the “right thing to do.”
So I suggest you protect yourself the best you can for the time being.