By Bryce Bower, Co-Editor
From 2007 to 2014, Facebook allowed app developers to harvest users’ data. Not just the users of the apps, but every one of their friends’ data was fair game as well. Sandy Parakilas, a former employee of Facebook who was responsible for policing 3rd-party data breaches, turned whistle-blower four months ago.
The Guardian explained that “Facebook took a 30% cut of payments made through apps, but in return enabled their creators to have access to Facebook user data.” Parakilas said that he always assumed there was a black market for this data. Whenever he would talk to his superiors about where the data went they suggested that Facebook would be better off not knowing.
Unfortunately for Facebook, people found out what happened to this data after a whistle-blower named Christopher Wylie from the company Cambridge Analytica (I will also refer to it as CA) came forward. CA is responsible for buying data that was harvested by these apps, and then using that data to send targeted and personalized political ads to Facebook users– with the intent to swing American voter decisions in the 2016 elections. They also targeted Facebook users in the UK who were expected to be anti-Brexit with pro-Brexit ads.
President Obama’s 2012 campaign was one the first to use this technology. In 2015, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign paid Cambridge Analytica’s parent company $750,000 to collect and create psychological profiles for potential voters, based on their Facebook profiles. This company then created and dispensed targeted ads that were based on different personality types.
What really got my attention was the lengths that this organization meddles in countries’ affairs. Cambridge Analytica boasted that their work with data and research “allowed Mr Trump to win with a narrow margin of 40,000 votes in three states, providing victory in the electoral college system”. Executives of CA claim that “[we] ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all of the strategy [for President Trump].”
A CA exec was secretly filmed saying that they bribe politicians around the world to influence elections. The exec also said that CA could “send some girls to the candidate’s house” to entrap him. “Ukrainian girls are very beautiful, I find that works very well,” he added.
Supposedly, trying to swing voter opinion is something Cambridge Analytica has had a lot of practice doing. Wylie claims that CA sent threatening and graphic videos of people being killed to voters in the 2015 Nigerian election. He also claims that CA hired an Israeli private intelligence firm, known as Black Cube, to “hack the personal data of Nigerian President Buhari prior to his election– to get access to his medical records and private emails.”
Facebook’s response to all of this has been rather flippant. UK parliament recently summoned the Facebook executive to appear before them. However, Zuckerberg decided to send deputies in his stead, in a move that some parliamentary members called “absolutely astonishing.” Zuckerberg has agreed to appear before Congress, however.
Facebook also admits to recording call and text history for Android users with Facebook Messenger. What is scariest to me is that they also use your phone’s microphone to listen to your “environment”– and then target ads towards what you are doing. As the Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie explained, Facebook would receive the environmental data, and if it thinks you are watching TV, it will show you ads of TV shows that are currently playing.
Zuckerburg was also a bit of a mystery during all of this. According to CNBC, in the last three months Zuckerberg has sold more stock than any insider at ANY other company. In the two weeks before the CA blowup, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sold over 1.14 million shares in FB (Although he still owns a tremendous amount of stock). Since this fiasco, Facebook has lost over $80 billion in market value; Zuckerberg himself lost around $14 billion. (Don’t worry, he still has about $61 billion left)
Facebook’s stock price has dropped 19% since (as of March 27) March 16 and people view this as a golden opportunity. There is no real competitor with Facebook, even if people are unhappy with Facebook they won’t leave. Many expect Facebook to bounce back and continue its climb in the future. According to Fact Set, 90% of brokers who cover the stock still have a “buy” rating on it. No matter what Facebook does, it seems to be invincible.
I brought up the option to deactivate my Facebook account this week, but I talked myself out of it. Now I am not one of those people who is addicted to social media, in fact I hate having to check my phone, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media. Communication shouldn’t feel like a chore.
If I can’t deactivate my account, it must be even harder for someone who is addicted to social media to even think about deleting Facebook. I thought to myself, “if I don’t use Facebook, how else will I keep in contact with people who live halfway around the world or see my friends’ engagement photos?” Facebook filled a niche too well, and there isn’t any competition. Many “alternatives”, such as messaging services like WhatsApp, are owned by Facebook!
The American Government isn’t helping things. Congress is trying to slip the C.L.O.U.D. Act in underneath our noses, hiding it in a 2,232 page omnibus package, which is a compilation of many different bills (the CLOUD Act starts on page 2,201). This Act would allow police to receive access to users’ social media data and all information on their profile– WITHOUT the need for a warrant. It would even let foreign governments wiretap people in America without having to follow the US Wiretap Act rules. All in the name of safety, of course.
The lawsuit of the People of Illinois against Facebook states “…Facebook is not a social media company; it is the largest data mining operation in existence.” In light of these findings, Edward Snowden tweeted, “Facebook is a surveillance company rebranded as ‘social media’.”