What the Cambridge Analytica scandal means for Facebook users

Graphic by Madeline McInnis

Since early last week, media coverage of the data breach that occurred at Cambridge Analytica (CA) has exploded due to a discovery that personal information from more than 50 million Facebook user accounts had been utilized for questionable means.

Cambridge Analytica, a data mining and analysis company, has been targeted for criminal investigation regarding the extent of their involvement in both the presidential election and Brexit referendum.

The breach came about because Aleksandr Kogan, creator of an app called “thisisyourdigitallife,” allowed the use of the app by CA for data collection. However, this permission was apparently given on the basis that it would be used for academic purposes only, not marketing.
   While roughly 270,000 people consented to allow collection of their Facebook information through this app, the unexpected aspect of this was that friends of those people had their data collected as well — without consent.

Among data analysis companies like CA, the main goal is to provide complex psychological profiling through an evaluation of various elements. This is most often provided to other companies who want to understand or target a specific demographic of consumer better.

For CA, this meant compiling the data from Facebook “likes” into a political profile, which could then be used by political organizations to specifically target people that have a particular vulnerability to that style of targeted marketing.

Normally, data mining isn’t as concerning as the most recent breach has been made out to be — the extent of user data collection tends to be used primarily for marketing.
   At worst, what this often means is ending up with weirdly accurate targeted ads on your Facebook feed.

An ad with a shirt that says “Walk away — this freedom-loving forklift operator born in December has anger issues and a serious dislike for stupid people” is a lot less threatening than the thought that your data has been used to persuade others into voting a particular way.
   What has made this such a problematic breach of trust has been the implications of its use.

For example, both the Brexit and Trump elections were — for many people —  an unexpected conclusion. Because of how close they were — Brexit voting was 51.89 per cent to leave, 48.11 per cent to remain — there has been consistent speculation that tampering was involved in both cases.

Instances like the CA breach lend credence to the idea that companies like this are utilizing user information and data mining unethically to influence the outcomes of important events such as these.
   Although in advertising this isn’t an immoral practice, as the goal is to maintain a competitive business edge over others, it certainly is in politics.
   Lobbying and its issues with unethical persuasion or corruption are already a prevalent issue in the current political climate and data analysis companies like CA only exacerbate the problem.

This issue has prompted many people to join the #DeleteFacebook movement, encouraging themselves and others to delete many of their social media accounts — specifically Facebook — to protest the actions of these large corporations. While this is an admirable goal, I don’t believe that in this age of information it’s entirely feasible.

While a significant amount of the blame rests on companies like Cambridge Analytica, who used the data of millions of Facebook users unethically and to questionable ends, a lot of it also rests on those who participated. This is by no means victim-blaming — we’ve all agreed to click on or download something without reading the fine print involved, ignoring what information they want access to or the data they will collect.

It’s incredibly easy to be ignorant of what other companies may be doing with your private information — and for some that may be okay.
   But not everyone is comfortable with it and that is something we need to be more conscious of.

#DeleteFacebook may be an optimistic movement boycotting social media companies, shedding light on many of their deceptive business practices, but we need to remember that — in many cases — we gave it right to them. In an era of convenience, it’s incredibly easy to forget what we are giving up for it.

It’s summed up best by Andrew Lewis, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

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