Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Russia, US elections – all of these have lately been connected by one word – scandal. More specifically, data privacy scandal. The news about Facebook is not getting any better. Last Tuesday, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was scheduled to testify before two congressional committees amid the growing objections over the company’s data collection practices. Zuckerberg admitted that his company could not prevent a leak of “the most valuable asset that they have” – users’ data. For example, information about the likes using which, according to some psychologists, it is easy to compose a portrait of a person’s personality and give advertisers more opportunities for micro-aggregating ads.
This is exactly what happened in the case of Cambridge Analytica. The company received data of tens of millions of Facebook users fraudulently: it was claimed that they are collected exclusively for academic purposes. According to Zuckerberg (this is confirmed by journalistic investigations), Facebook noticed the abuses by Cambridge Analytica back in 2015 and demanded the company to remove all the data obtained in this way. The company agreed, but in fact, did not delete anything. At the same time, Facebook never checked whether they did or not. Zuckerberg acknowledges this as the key mistake of the social network.
I watched the entirety of Zuckerberg’s testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington and I could not form an opinion on this case. Still can’t. Am I to stop using Facebook? Meaning stop using Instagram and WhatsApp – both of which are owned by Facebook? Shall I be worried or shall I just accept the fact that ones I have connected my life with Facebook – it knows everything about me? Does Facebook CEO’s testimony was as much about personal technology as it was a political theatre. It seemed as if 40 senators who have joined to ask Zuckerberg questions, we’re not even sure how Facebook works in the first place. We could make fun of them, but I believe, that not many of us, who actively use Facebook, are actually aware of how much data Facebook collects and what is it being used for. And Mark, being a technical genius, was able to easily find his way out of any question from the Member of Congress just by throwing some technical terms out there. Who has access to the information that I post on Facebook? On the question about data privacy Zuckerberg gave generic assurances: “We have never sold our users’ data”, which is clearly not the case, otherwise he would not be giving testimony in the first place.
Whenever he was questioned why Facebook collects so much data, he slipped out by saying that every Facebook user can have control over which personal information can be seen by whom. True, whenever we make a post on Facebook we can set our audience – just friends or everyone, but Facebook still gets access to all of your information, so it doesn’t change much in term of data privacy. Being an active Facebook user myself (who is not these days?) I am aware of cookies and that the information that I post can be used for a targeted ad, etc. The question is – how much of our data Facebook is collecting on its own? Yes, we are given a privilege to choose our audience, however, beyond this, Facebook is able to track your location as well as see which websites you are using. I have to confess to my first “Facebook is watching you”experience, I was slightly alerted. I am sure all of you can share this strange feeling. Let’s say you go on skyscanner.net to book a flight for your holidays to Rome. This exact minute you go on Facebook to check a message from your friend – and WOW – you already have ads that offer you the cheapest apartment in Rome, cheapest rental car company, cheapest sightseeing tours. I am used to it now, but a year or two ago, I felt rather uncomfortable. But then I realized that I cannot do much about it. Data privacy is not to be fought for by individuals – it’s to be regulated on a national and international level.
The question I am left with after Zuckerberg’s testimony is: if Facebooks wants us to be in control of our data, why doesn’t it put a button on our page which says “stop tracking me” (I would even pay Facebook for this). In reality, this would be too harmful to Facebook’s business.
There was one question during the testimony that dug into the core of the matter: “Would you be willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy?”. Facebook CEO’s answer was: “I am not sure what that means”
Are you not, Mr. Zuckerberg?