Facebook “data breach” may be a turning point in internet privacy


Illustration: Noah Raaum

Cambridge Analytica seems to have destroyed Facebook users’ sense of “privacy” after data mining 50 million profiles.

Internet privacy has been a topic of discussion for nearly 20 years. Recently, however, internet privacy issues have gotten more traction in the media than ever before. One such incident lies between Facebook and the UK data mining company Cambridge Analytica. Simply put, a data mining company gets access to as much raw data possible, and analyzes the data for better insight into advertising, politics and investments. This “raw data” may include public school standardized test scores, grocery store inventory reports, or in this case, social media profiles. Data mining manifests itself in many harmless ways, but in the case of Cambridge Analytica, many Facebook users left feeling violated and vulnerable.

Five months prior to the election, the Trump campaign put its data operations in the hands of Cambridge Analytica. Regardless of how greatly it influenced the election, the data was used to discourage, encourage or reaffirm certain political ideas by inserting inflammatory posts into a user’s feed.

The project began in 2014 when Cambridge discovered a wonderfully simple way to mine data from over 50 million Facebook users: a survey. The actual data wasn’t from the survey, per se, but rather directly from user profiles. When a user agreed to take the survey, they not only granted Cambridge access to their profile, but all of their friends’ profiles

Elections are won or lost by candidates, not data science.

— Cambridge Analytica

The data—comprised of one’s likes, dislikes, photos, friends, and location—could be sold to external companies and, shockingly, political campaigns. According to Cambridge’s website, they used the data to “Identify ‘persuadable’ voters, how likely they were to vote, the issues they cared about, and who was most likely to donate.” However, they plead their innocence by ending the press statement with “Elections are won or lost by candidates, not data science.”

In the world of such privacy scandals, who is at fault? The means by which Cambridge harvested its data were perfectly legal, however, Facebook explained in a press statement that it was truly a “data breach” and that the information was misused.

Is it possible that we as social media users are at fault for putting our information on the line? That may be the case. Nothing on the internet is entirely private, no matter how many times you’ve picked through settings, perused the terms and conditions or turned on a VPN. Data mining has become increasingly sophisticated, and it’s time for us to acknowledge that the more information we share on social media, the more vulnerable we are.

Platforms that carry a large sum of personal information—like Facebook—must be more responsible with their data and who they let access it. Sadly, putting privacy over profit has failed time and time again. Yet, as Facebook stock tumbles and user activity decreases, this scandal may be the turning point in internet privacy.