By Jarod Todeschi
A few short clicks through Facebook’s settings, through “Ads,” “Your information” and then “Your categories,” will reveal a list of assumed qualities that Facebook has collected about your personal life. The list contains more obvious info provided to the service directly, like your birthday month and the categories of people and other things that a user has liked. Beyond that, the details become a little bit more personal.
Knowledge of the accessibility to this information fueled senior Sierra Wilson to check it out on her own profile. “This is cool,” she said, at first intrigued by the two columns of info, “but it’s freaky.”
Facebook had her categorized in “Housemate-based households,” — defined by the service as “living in households where people are not immediate or extended family,” — as well as a
“Commuter,” a label she doesn’t currently accept, though she admitted, “I was a commuter in my hometown.” The mystery lingered. “I don’t know how it could know that.”
The cryptic Facebook claims that its purpose is to “help advertisers reach people who are most likely to be interested in their products, services and causes. We’ve added you to these categories based on information you’ve provided on Facebook and other activity.”
Perhaps the most controversial category is the “US politics” one, which parenthetically assigns users a liberal, moderate or conservative tag.
This means that while the service gives the user a forward agency to decide which other users can see their photos and posts via privacy and security settings, individuals lose such control to advertisers. To be fair, Facebook is an advertisement driven service, and an individual’s preferences and interests are tracked through histories and cookies while using the internet anyway — so what is the big deal?
Aside from Facebook’s intention to “help” advertisers (which suggests a favored loyalty toward corporate capital gain over the trust of an average user), your information is not secured from third parties either. While the average account holder may not even be aware that data of this kind is being tracked on them, recent news announced that for many users, such details were leaked and misused.
Political research organization Cambridge Analytica received a $15 million donation investment from Republicans Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon. The investment allowed the research firm to develop “tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior,” according to The New York Times. The Facebook data was accessed by a paid accomplice of Cambridge Analytica, who fronted that the data was being collected for “academic purposes.”
Instead, they used information accessed from the names behind millions of Facebook profiles. Initially reported as 50 million accounts, Facebook later announced that the number could be closer to 87 million. Of these accounts The New York Times reported that, “only a tiny fraction” had consented “to release their information to a third party.”
Public concern for private information in the wake of the leak caused uproar, asking many to delete their facebook accounts. #DeleteFacebook, a self-defining hashtag campaign, erupted on rivaling social media service, Twitter, as Facebook’s stock continued to plunge. For Time Magazine, analyst Scott Devitt said that the service likely “has a long road ahead of rebuilding credibility with users, society, politicians and regulators.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who had been hinting toward political ambitions himself just last year, testified before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday, April 10, and a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the morning of Wednesday, April 11.
According to CNN Tech, in his prepared remarks Zuckerberg took responsibility, writing, “We have a responsibility to make sure what happened with…Cambridge Analytica doesn’t happen again.” He added, “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” also addressing Russian interference during the 2016 election. “That’s not what we stand for.”
Facebook is further under fire for retainment of Messenger app data as well as malicious bulk harvesting from profiles accessed by personal emails or phone numbers, which Barbara Ortutay for ABC News reports to mean that “most of its 2.2 billion members have probably had their personal data scraped.”
While public comment from Facebook has been sparse, Zuckerberg confirmed to reporters that “at some point during the last several years, someone has probably accessed your public information in this way,” ultimately suggesting that the privacy damage with Facebook is already done.