Facebook-Cambridge Analytica leaks prompt discussions about user privacy

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Facebook updated its data policy as of April 19 following Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to Congress over the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal. Photo credit: Jay Guzman

Earlier this month, Facebook announced that a data firm had improperly collected information about nearly 87 million users, prompting a global debate around the issues of user privacy and data protection.

The firm, Cambridge Analytica, had been hired by President Donald Trump’s political campaign and used the obtained data to target voters. According to The New York Times, users downloaded a survey app and the researcher who created it gathered the information of those 270,000 people — including data about their friends — and later gave the data to Cambridge Analytica.

“It’s impressively disturbing what predictions computers are able to make about people’s voting, buying behaviors or behaviors in general from the findable information,” Kenrick Mock, UAA department chair of Computer Science and Engineering, said.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on April 10, where he was questioned about the company’s practices, government regulation and, of course, the mishap with Cambridge Analytica. Lawmakers pressed him about possibly offering an ad-free version and whether the company was a monopoly.

The entire debacle has brought up questions of how efficiently and effectively companies, such as Facebook, protect user data and how transparent they are to the general public about their methods.

Yet, what do people think about this incident and the notions of user privacy?

“There are some pretty impressive predictions that computers can make about things like political views or things you might buy,” Mock said. “I find it pretty interesting from a technology and machine perspective… But from a privacy point of view, I think it has this potential to be possibly misused or used in ways that weren’t intended.”

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Cambridge Analytica used the acquired data to possibly aim advertisements at users. Third-party applications are already able to collect personal data like this on Facebook and it is up to the user to choose what information is shared in their settings.

The tools that allow this kind of access are referred to as application programming interfaces, or A.P.I.s.

“Facebook does need to define more on how companies access their A.P.I.s as well as flesh out the terms and conditions [on] what is being shared to Facebook’s customers,” Xavier Cho, a UAA student, said.

He doesn’t think that the company is at fault, though. He said that Cambridge Analytica should be held responsible for the way it used the users’ information.

For Paul Babbitt Jr., an Alaskan resident, it also isn’t Facebook’s fault if people don’t read the fine print

“People knowingly and willingly give up the right to their private information they share on social media the moment they agree to the terms of use,” he said. “Anytime you install an app, it specifically asks for permissions to access cookies, share your information you have linked through your phone and people just hit ‘Accept’ and think, ‘Oh, okay, I have nothing to hide and I really want this app.'”

Joseph Sasis is a computer engineer in Liverpool, New York, and he said it’s hard to define privacy on the internet.

“If you let yourself out there, say, you post your opinions, you post memes of what you like, you post political agendas and what not, it’s really hard to restrict who can see your stuff and where your data goes,” Sasis said.

There’s a gray area for privacy, Sasis also said, and no fine line that distinguishes what can be private and what cannot.

“Most people think we have a right to privacy. We don’t,” Saiss said. “It’s not in the [United States] Constitution. People don’t have a right to privacy; it’s a privilege to have privacy. I think that’s one of the big things people are overlooking. I don’t think Facebook or Zuckerberg is largely at fault… I mean, Google is already out there listening to us. Everyone has their own personal FBI agent watching from their webcam camera, right?”

A new privacy law is being implemented in Europe in response to Facebook’s incident with Cambridge Analytica. The General Data Protection Regulation will take effect on May 25 and aims to give users more control over their information while requiring companies to be more transparent.

For users who are curious about their Facebook data, there is an option to download their archive. In general account settings, you can download a copy that will be prepared into a .zip file. The file will include your “digital life” such as people you have removed as friends, your entire timeline, ad topics you are interested in as well as advertisers that have your information and more. Even private messages are archived.

“Be very careful what you put on the internet,” Cho said.