The Cambridge Analytica story is starting to take over the news cycle, as the public learns just how the Trump campaign and its donors used Facebook ads to create a massive sociopolitical shakeup. Facebook has come under extreme scrutiny about what went wrong when it came to protecting our data from policy-violating third party use by Cambridge Analytica while being funded by Steve Bannon and the Mercers. How Facebook moves forward to recover from this part of the awful public relations nightmare has the potential to shake up the United States’ big data landscape for the better.
Disappointed, but Not Surprised
The era of what US Special Counsel Robert Mueller called “information warfare” has prompted us, as general internet users, to reevaluate how we want our data used. We know that our data is being collected on the internet – whether it’s via an Amazon search, a click on a random clothing ad that keeps popping up on Facebook or an accidental visit to a spam website. And yet, articles on this very website consistently show the benefits of big data and how great it is for tech giants and small businesses alike. What’s clear despite these extremes is that our data creates a profile of us, which is used strategically and is supposed to help create better customer service.
However, data’s frightening use for political means at such a large scale as the Cambridge Analytica case is where we start to see more of a problem. Cambridge Analytica sent targeted ads to users with information about issues they cared about, and this intelligence was gained through profile data. This was not to create a better environment for us, but instead to attack our psyche and divide a country further, “breaking” society and reforming it in the image created by the bankrollers of the far right.
Users of social networks aren’t necessarily huge fans of that, even if they do believe that they’re smart enough to not be fooled by targeted advertisements like what Cambridge Analytica was injecting into our feeds.
Facebook Has a Chance to Pioneer Users’ Data Protection
A lack of transparency about big data and a lack of reimbursement for users whose data is sent to developers are two very distinct issues highlighted by this scandal. There was no option to opt out and no freedom to decide where the data went or who gets to look at it.
That control was most likely ceded in the Facebook’s Terms and Conditions – something that everyone knows and no one reads. Even if they did read it, it’s hidden behind legal jargon. While it’s unrealistic to think that Facebook would start reimbursing their users for their data, I think the company is going to have to make a lot of changes and give some power back to the users to decide what data goes where – plus incorporate more transparency about what the data is being used for.
That might also be forced soon by the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) going into effect in May. If Facebook used the regulations it will soon begin following in Europe, this would be a decent template for how to approach users in the United States.
I don’t foresee the GDPR being codified into regulation in the United States anytime soon, and the European regulation can’t realistically be enforced in the US. Unfortunately, this leaves our fates in the hands of the tech giants who are benefiting from our data being stored in their servers. If Facebook takes the lead on this to make up for their massive failure to ensure our data was used in accordance with policy, then we could see other tech giants like Google and Twitter following suit by making this policy universal across the globe, and not just in Europe.
This scandal marks two significant events: 1) the introduction of political campaign strategies that harness personal internet data to influence national psyche, and 2) a massive shakeup of the general big data landscape as users demand more control over their data. We now see that big data can be used to run a successful major campaign, which can mean that this will likely be repeated. Facebook and other tech companies need to make a conscientious effort to strengthen protections around our most valuable data, or else we risk seeing a breach of trust like this again.
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