Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica Scandal Shines a Spotlight on Privacy Concerns

Years of stewing privacy concerns have erupted in response to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica obtained information collected from more than 50 million Facebook profiles without users’ permission. In 2014, information gathered on Facebook was used to create around 30 million psychographic profiles. Surprisingly, the only “problem” according to Facebook’s rules was that Cambridge Analytica didn’t collect the information themselves. It wasn’t the information that was obtained or how it was used that broke Facebook’s rules; it was the fact that they got the information from a third party.

Facebook actually encourages third-party apps to collect personal information to fulfill the app developers purpose and have had little in place to prevent developers from exploiting the personal information available on its platform.

“Users can opt out of sharing specific pieces of information, but it’s unclear how many do.”

It’s almost certain that similar practices permeate throughout social media companies and the tech industry as a whole.  The public’s realization that they are being profiled, sold, and possibly manipulated has likely led to the growing discomfort that many have with these large platforms. Facebook, Twitter, and Google (Alphabet) online services are largely built around the monetization of personal data and serving ads to hungry users. These services have long since switched from being free to “free.”  The features they provide are not the free loving meals of a parent but instead a fisherman’s “free” worm on a fish hook.  While the fish in this analogy have “consented” to sharing their data, the problem is that many do not know what is collected from them or what it will be used for.

Another problem is that once a person has consented to giving their information to one app there is not much deterrence to sharing that information with others.  When data is exchanged between private individuals illegally or legally it’s not like you see shipping containers of goods.  No one may ever know.  Presently, there doesn’t appear to be any effective system in place by Facebook to prevent the transfer of this information.

As a result of this scandal, Facebook is under investigation by the FTC and may also be hit with lawsuits from State Attorneys around the country. Congress has also requested that Zuckerberg testify before them.  Lawmakers will undoubtedly review current privacy laws and suggest changes to meet the concerns of the country. However, lawmakers will need to be discerning in this area because there will be tradeoffs between technological innovation and privacy. Artificial intelligence, for example, is progressing at breakneck speeds because of the wide availability of data. This scientific progress will create new wonders, but it is important that lawmakers and the tech community appreciate the individuals need for privacy.

Tech companies will have to look at more than just their bottom line and the competition to develop new products. Lawmakers should probably wait for the industry to regulate itself, however, it could be argued that this opportunity has already been given. But, allowing companies to regulate themselves, instead of the government passing hardline rules, would leave more space for companies to react to advances in technology. Companies need to strive for the optimal balance in their own space and not simply develop methods, likely no less intrusive or outrageous, that skirt the rules passed by lawmakers. Hard line rules may allow companies to point the finger at government, for passing “shoddy laws”, instead of taking the blame themselves. Hopefully, if the public is educated on how to protect their privacy and what companies are doing with their data, the public’s opinion and outrage will stimulate change in this field without the government having to act.