When Facebook fails

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This week there were major developments in the Cambridge Analytica investigation.

Here’s what you need to know:

As explained by Muhlenberg’s Chief Information Officer, Allan Chen, “Cambridge Analytica is a data analytics company that works on voter profiles.”

“It is a consultancy company that aims to ‘change audience behavior’ through the use of data,” Chen said.

The data was obtained by Cambridge Analytica using an app found on Facebook’s site, which harvested personal information.

The investigation that is currently taking place into Cambridge Analytica revolves around their procurement of personal data of Facebook users without their consent.

“Through a third party application built on the Facebook platform, it gathered personal information for as many as 87 million separate users (at Facebook’s last estimation). This data was used to build voter profiles, which in turn were used by at least the Trump administration in its campaign,” Chen continued.

Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogen designed a data collection application in conjunction with the firm, which not only collected the information of the user signing onto the app, but the data of their network as well. In an interview the BBC conducted with Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower of the New York Times investigation, Wylie explains how the data was then used to make psychological inferences based on Facebook ‘likes.’ Somewhat more frightening is that the user had no idea any of this was taking place.

The major goal was to “create a distrust among established institutions,” according to the New York Times, making the users trapped in a new reality and thus behaving differently.

The enlightening information emerging from the New York Times investigation perhaps explains the rise of the Fake News phenomena. It more so prompts a deeper discussion on “functional democracy,” as phrased by Wylie, through deciphering what is real and what is not.

What’s happening now?

Alexander Nix has been suspended due to a compromising recording of the CEO being linked to potential bribery and entrapment.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook,  also recently testified before a congressional committee on the matter. What will be more consequential for the CEO are the potential actions the FTC may or may not take in their impending investigation on Facebook’s privacy practices.

“Facebook for many years has been based on wide open standards. Application developers involved in the CA scandal have taken advantage of these lax restrictions to gain access to information far beyond what is normally needed for that app to operate,” said Chen.

How does this apply to the Muhlenberg community?

So how does this happen, and what should we look out for?

“The app required access not only to those that downloaded and installed it but to that person’s entire network of friends. It is therefore possible that personal information such as name, address, what you’ve ‘liked,’ etc. [has been accessed],” said Chen.

“It’s like installing a gaming app that for some reason asks for access to your entire phone’s contents,” Chen explained.

For many Facebook users like Muhlenberg student Kathryn Ambroze ‘18, “Facebook is a means to connect with friends and coordinate events”

“Facebook is a free tool to connect with people, and although I believe Facebook should be more transparent about the way they use our information — this scandal did not come at a shock to me, especially because of the nature of this past election,” Ambroze continued.

As pointed out by Muhlenberg student Samara Jones ’18, “It is no secret that we are being targeted by marketing campaigns. However, in the context of a political campaign, the outcome has an effect on shaping the world.”

“We all objectively understood that it was taking data but for private gains, not necessarily for public ones,” Jones continued. “[sites like this one are] not necessarily just taking my data, but my friends’ data … I can’t make that decision [to forfeit ‘private’ information] for them.”

Furthermore, says Jones, “Mining data to sell as something only impacts the individual, whereas mining it for political purposes effects everyone.”

Both Ambroze and Jones say they will keep their Facebook accounts. However, Jones says that she will certainly be more precarious and mindful when using the site.

Similarly, Ambroze says “I do not post anything that I would be uncomfortable having my parents, a boss or a professor see.”

Ambroze continued, “Even though I do keep my settings private, the first wall of protection is deciding what is appropriate to post.”

What should ‘Berg students do? Are there extra precautions that should be taken?

Aside from completely erasing all traces of one’s Facebook account, which is not possible, not a lot can be done to entirely secure an individual’s information. Furthermore, should we need to? What is the balance between contributing to a digital community and sharing too much?

Chen suggests, “Users should be always checking on what security requirements an app is requesting and asking themselves if such allowances make sense or not, or at the least if you’re comfortable with such requests.”

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