For most of us, the Facebook scandal is current and significant news, however the full details, the size, reach and impacts of the controversy are in many ways somewhat of a mystery.
Ok, yes we get that the personal data of Facebook users has been mishandled and that there have long been reservations about the enormous amount of information Facebook collects. Plus, we grasp that this is a big deal as Facebook has nearly two billion users around the globe. Plus, we are aware that for Facebook this is a total branding nightmare.
Yet, you could be forgiven for not being fully aware that when you delve deeper into the scandal it actually starts to read like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster, involving the most controversial and nasty US presidential campaigner ever, allegations that the world’s largest social network listens to users’ conversations through the microphone on their smart phones and after much speculation, the revelation that during the 2016 U.S. election a handful of Russian actors manipulated Facebook users by spreading misinformation on the social network.
See what I mean, I’m even thinking Matt Damon for the lead, how about you?
So, let’s look at how all this started
The whole scandal stems from news that in 2007 Facebook allowed access to the data they held on their users. App creators, developers of games, social software and dating apps, plus academics, researchers and marketers all gained access to the data of Facebook’s users.
In 2015 Facebook learnt that Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge had broken its data policies when he shared user data gleaned from his personality prediction app with others, including Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with ties to President Donald
Trump’s 2016 campaign.
This led to Facebook clamping down on access, citing user privacy concern, although it was too late to stop the data, including not just information on people who downloaded the app but also those people’s Facebook friends.
Facebook said it had received assurances the improperly accessed data had been deleted. However, the company later learned that this wasn’t true and they couldn’t independently confirm what data had been scrubbed.
So, what does the data shared contain?
When you join and use Facebook you provide them with information which becomes your public profile. This includes your name, profile picture, cover photo, gender, networks and user ID.
However, this is just the tip of information stored as Facebook also retains data on your hometown, religion, political affiliations, work and education histories and your relationship interests i.e. your sexual orientation.
Their monitoring of you and your information doesn’t stop there either. Facebook keeps a record of every photo and video that has been uploaded, every post ever written, every place on the map that has been tagged and every page, on Facebook and on the web that users have ever ‘liked’.
Put simply, whatever users have volunteered to Facebook or interacted with on Facebook becomes part of a profile that can be accessed by developers, app creators, academics, researchers and marketers and targeted by advertisers.
Facebook also uses the profile they develop to interact with you by suggesting friends to tag in photos posted. Indeed, this is the feature that ignited concerns that the company was monitoring people’s data and gave birth to the conspiracy theory suggesting Facebook listens to people’s through microphones on their smart phones.
So, does Facebook just hand this data over: how is it access?
Facebook executives stress the company doesn’t sell data directly to advertisers. Handing over user data would be bad for Facebook’s business model, they argue.
What Facebook does is use the information given by a user to build targeting tools that can be used by advertisers.
Plus, many apps and websites offer the option, or indeed require people to login with Facebook and by doing so it allows the app or website to access to the information in the public profiles and ask for specifics such as a friend list, birthday or political beliefs. Before 2015, Facebook even let developers pull detailed information about friends, too.
The user data collected is meant to enhance the user experience by only showing adverts that you would actually click on. However, marketers can also pay to promote non advertising content, such as a post containing a news article. Facebook also uses data in other ways, including creating a personalised news feed for you, every time you log on.
What have Facebook proposed they do about the scandal?
Facebook Chief Executive, Mr Zuckerberg has admitted that Facebook has made mistakes and apologised for the controversy over how its user data has been handled. He has also said that Facebook will investigate any other potential abuses by app developers who have had access to large amounts of people’s data.
Facebook also plans to map out the quantity and type of data app developers requested between 2007 and 2015 and will start by examining apps that had large user bases, 100,000 people or more, and those apps that pulled extensive data about a smaller group of people.
Going forward, Zuckerberg has said that the only information apps and websites will receive by default will be a person’s name, profile picture and email address, plus they will control an app’s access to data if a person hasn’t used that app in three months.
Although there are those still with significant concerns as Zuckerberg added “Like any security precaution, it’s not that this is a bulletproof solve.”