Cybersecurity

The silver lining in Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal

January 17, 2019

Following Facebook's massive Cambridge Analytica scandal, many were pessimistic about digital freedoms and the increasingly invasive role social media outlets are playing in our lives. There is, however, something to be optimistic about.

The title of this piece is not a bait headline. So before you click away thinking I’m insane for making that statement, just hear me out. Surely by now you’ve heard about Facebook’s scandal involving data company Cambridge Analytica (which happens to be John Oliver’s birth name), so I won’t spend time writing about what it is or how it happened. Instead, I hope to shed just a bit of light on the silver lining that came out of this situation that cost Mark Zuckerberg a few billion dollars in net worth.

The silver lining? Awareness.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Why should I care?

First, let’s settle on the fact that this was not a security breach. Perhaps this is the scariest part—people actually agreed to give away their information. If you’re one of the 50+ million affected, you might think that you never actually agreed to it, but the reality is that you probably did and just didn’t realize it. And here’s another critical truth: Facebook knew about this since 2015.

Which brings me to my main point: Sometimes we need a good hard reality check to really audit who knows what about us. Have you given though to just how much data you generate every single day? Every time you open Facebook or Instagram, Facebook knows and logs exactly where that connection is coming from and what you are looking at. That picture that you zoomed into, or that message you received, or even just how much time you spend looking at something—it’s all logged and tracked.

When Facebook first launched, its mission was to create a more “open” and “connected” world. And since then, Facebook has worked very hard in maintaining that friendly mantra. Whether it was through “pokes” (remember those?) or by asking you “What’s on your mind?” Facebook always portrayed itself as just another one of your close friends who introduced and connected you to a whole bunch of other friends (or “friends”).

Facebook knows what you want before you do

Underneath it all, however, lied the true nature of what has inevitably become of the world’s biggest surveillance agencies. Now, before you label me a tin-foil hat, just take a look at all of the permissions on Facebook and Facebook Messenger.

If you’re too lazy to look into it, here are just a few key permissions that you’ve allowed:

  • Access to your contacts and all of their information
  • Ability to read all of your sent and received texts
  • Ability to have the microphone on at all times
Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash

Often times, people won’t realize there’s an issue until it’s too late, despite the warning signs early on. Yet, we have become slaves to likes, memes, and arbitrary follower numbers that are supposed to determine how popular someone is. Many might argue that they don’t care, but tell that to Facebook and Instagram’s algorithm, which gives high follower and engagement counts the top spots in your News Feed and Explore tab. Some people have also floated around the idea of getting rid of these vanity metrics.

Still, Facebook isn’t going anywhere. The social juggernaut has become an integral part of our lives whether we like it or not. I just hope that this brings people to not only be aware of these issues, but taking actionable steps in securing their information.

Remember that the third-party app which spread took everyone’s friend information, too, simply because people were not aware as to what they were signing up for. That’s not to say the developer isn’t to blame or wasn’t sneaky. Regardless, there are risks that could have and should have been mitigated.

How can I start to take back my information and privacy?

The silver lining in Facebook’s data scandal is awareness that hopefully turns into action. If we are not responsible with our own data, not only are we putting ourselves at risk, but also our friends’ and family. One concrete step would be to discuss the potential of a DPA—Digital Protection Agency. There’s a debate on the pros and cons of that, but having a federal protection agency that overlooks and regulates digital privacy is certainly an option to consider.

I am not necessarily advocating for a DPA, mainly because it could prove ending up worse without the right processes and protocols in place. No one is to say for sure, but there certainly are many considerations that could make it a viable option in the near future. Either way, it’s very clear that there is an increasing interest in protecting our privacy online. The most important thing to remember is that the power to do so is in your own hands.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

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