Facebook Scandal’s Lesson: Your Persona Is A Commodity

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Facebook Scandal’s Lesson: Your Persona Is A Commodity


March 23, 2018


The scandal involving political consulting group Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of personal data of 50 million Facebook users offered a grim reminder: Nothing is truly free on the Internet. Even that handy cell phone flashlight can sell you out.

Many Americans have been alarmed to learn that their Facebook data was scooped up and dissected to compile a “psychographic profile” to help a company bankrolled by a conservative billionaire and aligned with the Trump campaign to target voters in 2016.

The scheme was insidious and in clear violation of Facebook’s stated privacy-protection assurances.

The notion that an active user of social media could be unwittingly offering a treasure trove of data to people eager to leverage it for profit or political gain is neither surprising nor unusual. In fact, data mining is the business model that is generating about $50 billion a year in global advertising for Facebook, and untold millions if not billions more for the applications in its orbit.

“We’ve been told for a long time that Google and Facebook may know everything about us, but they don’t sell it and they don’t share it,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit group from Santa Monica. “We’ve sort of believed that because their business model is to protect that information so they can charge advertisers to find us.”

Trust no more, if you ever did.

“I think that we have lost sight of the fact that we’re not the customer for Facebook,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, whose district includes its Menlo Park headquarters. “We’re the product. The customer is the advertiser.”

The Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed the vulnerability of Facebook and its users to deception.

The origins of this huge data breach was an app called Thisisyourdigitallife that attracted 270,000 Facebook users seeking personality profiles. It was advertised as academic research. The survey did ask permission of the participants, but did not disclose that it would then obtain information about their Facebook friends. In so doing, the data capture expanded exponentially to profile 50 million Americans.

Those data collections can provide telling identifiers about an individual’s race, gender, wealth, intelligence or sexual orientation, as well as whether he or she might tend to be extroverted, introverted, narcissistic or eager to please.

Cambridge Analytica has bragged to its clients that it can use this data to better assess someone’s personality traits than his or her friends.

Such information was invaluable to a group such as Cambridge Analytica. “Microtargeting” is the cutting edge of modern politics, and individualized profiles are pure gold for strategists trying to determine which voters to motivate or discourage before an election.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly requested the emails of Cambridge Analytica staffers who worked with the Trump campaign as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Steve Bannon, a former Cambridge Analytica vice president and board member who worked for the Trump campaign and White House, said last week that he “didn’t even know anything about the Facebook mining.”

The commercial world has long recognized the potential of data mining. Advertisers call it your “digital shadow,” which you are refining with every click.

“There is a profile that lives out there about each of our psychological tendencies,” said Consumer Watchdog’s Court. It is the commodification of our persona. That’s the most dangerous information to have stored anywhere, because it’s most likely not accurate and it can be used to discriminate us in all sorts of ways.”

More on Facebook fallout

It goes well beyond those adds for Pottery Barn popping up after you check out a bed frame. You are constantly and inadvertently providing a road map to your wallet and a window to your soul.

“It’s an invasion of privacy that we don’t even begin to understand,” Speier said of data mining on the Internet.

So what can you do about it?

Some folks are abandoning Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica revelations (the hashtag #DeleteFacebook is trending), but one does not necessarily need to untether from the joys of sharing pics with friends and family, and reconnecting with long-lost neighbors and classmates.

As a social-media user, you can constrain the tentacles of data miners. Review the privacy settings on your Facebook account. Know that applications connected to Facebook become readily accessible for data mining. Don’t voluntarily allow an app access to your photos, location, address book or other information it doesn’t need to perform its stated function.

“I would advise consumers: Never sign in (an app) with Facebook,” said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

And then there is the policy prescription.

Signatures are being gathered for the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, which would establish a consumer’s right to request that a business disclose what categories of personal data it gathers, and to offer the right to say no without losing services or otherwise facing discrimination. That disclosure must be made within 30 days, free of charge.

If that measure qualifies, it will provoke a battle royal in November. Facebook and Google are among the early contributors ($200,000 each) to what is expected to be a multimillion-dollar opposition campaign.

The tug-of-war between privacy rights and commercial innovation is reminiscent of the fight at the turn of the century over whether and how to restrain financial institutions from selling or sharing customer information without permission.

Yet those concerns about banks exploiting personal information seem almost quaint today.

“The dossiers (online sites) they have on us now are so much more fulsome because it’s not just the information you provide to Wells Fargo when you took out a loan or got a credit card,” said Speier. “They know who your friends are, they know what makes you happy, what makes you sad, they know what you gravitate to.

“You almost feel like you’re being unclothed.”

Ultimately, the financial services industry was forced to yield, but not after an epic three-year fight that consumed about $20 million in lobbying costs on a 120-member California Legislature. Yet Speier, then a state senator, was relentless in pursuit of a privacy bill. A signature drive for an extremely rigid privacy law was the tipping point: Banks and insurance companies, sensing they would lose at the polls, withdrew opposition. Gov. Gray Davis signed the landmark privacy bill in August 2003.

There is a lesson there for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other titans of Silicon Valley. They would be wise to work with the state and federal lawmakers to develop reasonable regulations that could balance the sometimes conflicting values of innovation and privacy.

Otherwise, voters might take the matter into their own hands.

Speier readily acknowledged that data collection is a difficult area to regulate, especially with its constant evolution, but it should be guided by two principles.

“I do think that we should have choice, and we have a right to know,” she said. “Those are two fundamental consumer protections that are missing at Facebook right now.”

Oh, and about that flashlight: The FTC in December 2013 actually sanctioned the maker of the Brightest Flashlight Free app for offering third parties, including advertising networks, the location and identifying code of phones even before the user clicked “accept.”

There is no such thing as a free app. Y ou are the product. Remember that the next time you are tempted to upload the can’t-live-without game or other application.

John Diaz is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @JohnDiazChron

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdoghttps://consumerwatchdog.org
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