10 April, 2018
Two months ago, the public collectively realized that Facebook was complicit in harvesting our personal demographic and political data and selling it for usage by third-party data firms for targeted news and advertising. Given these revelations, do we still have privacy?
According to Pew Research Center, ever since Edward Snowden leaked government data in 2013, Americans have cared deeply about privacy. However, few have outright ditched their smartphones and burned off their fingerprints. Thus, do we still have data that we can hide from Facebook or Google? Although most people already know that the government regularly tracks our phone calls, this scandal is different. In this case, private companies quietly changed the public’s opinion to match the companies’ vested interests.
In an interview for Time Magazine, security technologist Bruce Schneier said, “If people were told they had to inform the police when we made a new friend, we would never do that. Instead, we inform Facebook.” Amid ensuing privacy worries, concerns have been raised over whether the public has done enough to stop tech companies from collecting their data unethically.
A startling 59% of Internet users believe that it is not possible to become completely anonymous online, according to Pew Research Center. This may be signaling pessimism from within the public on Internet privacy. However, a reported 86% of Internet users have taken measures to protect their privacy, including deleting cookies in their browser and clearing their browser history. This data is contradictory. We appear to have foregone our privacy, but we feel as if we can take small measures to completely secure ourselves. “An all too natural consequence of Facebook’s business model, which involves having people go to the site for social interaction, only to be quietly subjected to an enormous level of surveillance,” said sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in an interview with The Guardian. With this terrifying level of data collection by Facebook and other technology companies, we need to come to reckoning with how mind-bogglingly little privacy we actually have and call for change at the governmental level. The European Union is already an excellent example of how consumers can be warned about possible privacy violations, with the notable cookie usage warnings at the bottoms of all European websites that use cookie tracking.
Almost all of the unpleasant things about post-2016 America link themselves to Cambridge Analytica: Russian hackers, Steve Bannon and fake news. Flashpoint issues such as Confederate monument removal, gun control and police brutality have all linked to people’s Facebook usage data. Data firms are targeting users and influencing what they think.
The Guardian recently released an article stating that Facebook is not the only company surveilling us. Companies such as AT&T and Verizon regularly collect our data and use it for targeted advertisements. A 2013 research study at the University of Tennessee revealed that “many online instances involving online tracking bring about ethical quandaries due to the nature of the Internet and what qualifies as dishonest advertising.” Also, Facebook users are at high risk for data scraping from personality quizzes and subsequent targeted advertising. According to a New York Times article, 270,000 people downloaded Facebook’s personality quiz app called thisisyourdigitallife. Those who participated had not only their data collected, but also their friends’ data. This is frightening, considering Facebook’s impeccable ability to collect data from people offline from the use of shadow profiles, involuntary files of data collected without user consent.
With these instances of Facebook’s privacy violations, some have come up with alternatives, ranging from paying more attention on what you post to deleting Facebook altogether. One of these alternatives to Facebook’s fast-and-loose growth is to charge users for an ad-free Facebook. Facebook would have to charge every user $7 a month to pay for what would be lost from advertisers. However, a large swath of the world’s population wouldn’t be able to contact their distant friends and relatives because they don’t have the money to pay for Facebook monthly, according to Quartz.
According to NBC News, “the Facebook privacy debacle involving Cambridge Analytica is bad, but its really only the tip of a very big iceberg.” In the aftermath of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress and the relatively tame reaction from lawmakers, we need to step up to regulating the giants of tech.