The latest scandal to hit Facebook broke on March 16, when The New York Times and The Guardian published reports that the political strategising and data mining firm Cambridge Analytica “improperly” obtained access to more than 50 million Facebook accounts. In a real-life imitation of a subplot from House of Cards, it appears the internet data was used to tailor US President Donald Trump’s election campaign by individually targeting American voters through their psychographic profiles, as gleaned from Facebook activity.
The fallout of the scandal is almost amusing. Media reports call it “misuse” of data from “unwitting” Facebook users. And though all of us are used to our browsers constantly snooping on us, showing us ads for hotels and cheap flights to cities which we happen to look up for some reason, we pretend we are shocked, horrified, and betrayed.
Was Facebook obliged to protect our data?
The Facebook chiefs, Zuckerberg and his Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, have been making a mantra of, “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.”
For years now, Facebook has been gradually reducing our control over our accounts.
We can no longer control who can add us, who can see us, or who can like and react to our public posts, even if we disable the “Follow” option.
Facebook has faced flak before, once for selling our data to targeted advertising and once for the spreading of fake news ahead of the US election.
This particular breach was a little different, because it was orchestrated by a third party app.
Cambridge researcher Aleksandr Kogan created an app called thisisyourdigitallife in 2014, which was downloaded by nearly 300,000 people on Facebook. They gave the app access to their information, and because of Facebook’s lax rules for developers, access to the information on their friends’ profiles too. He then sold this data to Cambridge Analytics.
The whistleblower and Cambridge Analytics employee, Christopher Wylie, spoke of a strategy that sounds quite obvious – the company mined likes and other publicly available information to gauge the personalities of users and target them for electioneering. We don’t know how useful this information was to them.
And yet, the entire world is baying for a blood sacrifice.
Facebook is being investigated by various high-level committees, along with Cambridge Analytica. After refusing to appear before a UK Parliamentary Committee, Zuckerberg has now agreed to testify before the US Congress, and has also been asked to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In addition, he will probably testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee.
But how do the people who surrendered their data to take quizzes, on how they will die and what their tombstones will say and which celebrity they look like and which animal they were in their past lives and which of their friends they will marry and who visits their profile the most often, explain their stupidity? In a world where nothing is free, and on a platform which has previously made private messages temporarily public, how did they possibly assume their data was “safe”?
When we put our pictures out there for the world to see, allow various apps access to our phone contacts and text messages and photographs, why do we delude ourselves into thinking we are not open to scrutiny?
The most bizarre response of all has been the deletion spree. A hashtag calling for people to delete their Facebook accounts emerged last week, and it appears a lot of users have, years after giving away their information to everyone who saw fit to pay for it.
And here, in India, where most people have already linked their biometric details to their bank accounts, telephone numbers, cooking gas connections, vehicle purchases, and PAN cards, there is a tussle between the Congress and BJP over who may be misusing the data of their fans.
Newly-crowned Congress chief Rahul Gandhi referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “Bigg Boss”, spying on those who downloaded the NaMo app. In response, Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani suggested the cartoon character Chhota Bheem was better-informed than Rahul Gandhi. The BJP went on to accuse the Congress of sending the data of users who had downloaded the WithINC app to Singapore-based firms. Irani took time off her purportedly busy schedule to stalk the app and gloat that it had been deleted.
Funnily enough, Obama’s campaign team designed an app in 2012 to figure out their vote bank’s interests and cater their electioneering to it. Whatever the Congress and BJP did with their apps, they likely had to explicitly seek consent from the users and were within the law. And yet, even developers are getting jittery after the Facebook scandal.
At a time when our entire lives are open books to Google, do we really think our data is in any way protected?
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?
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Democracy has no place for mobs
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Jallikattu: Tamil Nadu's testosterone-fuelled madness
Which epic heroine is more than her vagina?
Why does corporal punishment still exist?
The bizarreness of modern-day feminism