More than two weeks after Facebook’s massive data leak of user information to voting analytics firm Cambridge Analytica was first exposed, new revelations on the extent of the tech titan’s privacy violations continue to surface. Facebook’s most recent confession, which inflates the number of Facebook users whose profiles were wrongly harvested to a staggering 87 million, serves as a chilling reminder of the malicious implications of modern technology. The sheer scale of Facebook’s data breach has inspired a renewed and thorough reflection of our society’s perception of privacy. But while this activism is indicative of a well-meaning and timely shift in public attitude toward the practice of data collection, it fails to address the problems beyond Facebook. A greater awareness of efforts to exploit our private information must also include calls for greater oversight of technology companies themselves.
It goes without saying that Cambridge Analytica’s collection of private data from tens of millions of Facebook users for “psychographic modeling” in recent American elections was an egregious violation of privacy. Only about 270,000 Facebook users participated in an original personality survey and consented to having data collected. Their information was then turned over, along with the profiles of another 87 million users unaware of the academic study, to Cambridge Analytica.
However, for today’s children, adolescents and college students — all of whom were raised in or born into a post-9/11 surveillance state — personal privacy has always been accompanied by an asterisk, and control over personal information has always been understood as a compromise. This has resulted in a sort of normalized apathy, an immunizing agent to the magnitude of such privacy violations as Facebook’s. As technology continues to play a larger role in our everyday life, we, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board, call on college students in particular to better realize how personal data collection impacts large-scale inequalities and democratic processes throughout society.
The current case constitutes an example of such. As a firm largely owned by conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer and partially run by board member Steve Bannon, the Breitbart mogul and a former adviser to President Donald Trump, Cambridge Analytica used its data and election-influencing experience in its work for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Remaining apathetic about the use of collected data for purely commercial purposes is one thing, but the construction of politically influential data collection systems is another entirely. In failing to adequately protect user privacy, which comes on the heels of its acknowledged role in spreading Russian propaganda leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Facebook is complicit in Cambridge Analytica’s extralegal attempt to influence democratic processes. This scandal now joins other numerous instances of malfeasance by big data systems, which have been shown to adopt and reinforce societal biases and perpetuate existing inequalities.
As much as the Facebook case demonstrates the widespread and significant consequences of privacy violations, it also reveals the extent to which activities like this are largely left unaddressed. Limitations on data collection for the sake of online privacy have, as of now, failed to materialize in Congress. However, we must keep in mind that alternative paths are simply not viable. Despite possible drawbacks to targeted advertising, its centrality to the modern technology industry ensures it will remain monetarily incentivized as long as profits outnumber any user discomfort it causes. Additionally, the recent calls to #DeleteFacebook demonstrate a severe underestimation of the platform’s utter ubiquity. For instance, many business owners depend on Facebook to communicate effectively, damaging the credibility of any mass deletion campaign.
Indeed, direct government regulation and constraint of companies that harness and sell users’ personal information is the only sensible path. For a company that just revealed additional, severe vulnerabilities in most users’ profiles, Facebook (and tech mega-firms like it) have so far enjoyed relatively little oversight. We no longer have to ponder the hypothetical consequences of such an arrangement: Cambridge Analytica’s unscrupulous handling of Facebook user data dismantles the notion that any company built on selling consumer data can — or rather, will — prioritize user privacy and enforce such provisions, so long as their service remains monetarily free.
Moreover, the foundation is already in place for government to take action: A majority of Internet users find targeted ads distasteful, pointing to a need for legislation similar to the European Union’s soon-to-be enacted General Data Protection Regulation. As current alternatives for maintaining privacy remain laborious and esoteric, we must keep in mind that progressive governance has routinely shifted the onus of protection from the consumer to the producer (think: the FDA, EPA, etc.). Therefore, we at the Editorial Board call on Americans to push their elected representatives to pass meaningful legislation limiting technology companies.
Treating online advertisements like TV advertisements, where sponsors must be openly disclosed, is a good start to increased transparency, as are requirements that consumer information not be collected beyond what is necessary for the service provided. Angry Facebook users would be wise to channel their dissatisfaction toward their local and state representatives and, in so doing, make online privacy rights a fundamental platform issue. Through this kind of democratic activism, we as Internet users and citizens can take back ground in the fight for online privacy and put a halt to mass manipulation of our personal data.
Do you love to debate today’s important issues? Do you want your voice heard? We hold twice-weekly Editorial Board meetings at our newsroom at 420 Maynard St. in Ann Arbor, where we discuss local, state and national issues relevant to campus. We meet Mondays and Wednesdays from 7:15 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.
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