Cybersecurity continues to be a hot topic as more and more people are finding that their online data has been compromised. (Maybe it’s time we read the fine print of those security agreements more closely.) In the wake of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandals, it’s a good time to reevaluate how we protect ourselves on social media, and ask ourselves the question: is the only way to stay completely safe to stay away altogether? What would a world without Facebook look like?
When we give tech companies access to our personal information, it’s generally with the expectation that it won’t end up being a total invasion of our privacy. But in the last month, we’ve gotten a reminder that that assumption is not always true.
The who-what-when-where is still unclear, but somehow, the data of around 50 million Facebook users was obtained by consultants working with President Trump’s 2016 campaign. The source of the data seems to have been upstart political data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica.
And what’s the connection between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook? Well, in 2013, a researcher at Cambridge University named Aleksandr Kogan developed a personality-quiz application for Zuckerberg’s social media platform. About 300,000 people installed Kogan’s app on their accounts (Nieva, 2018). Kogan was able to access data not only about those users, but also about their friends. He advertised his data collection as being for “academic purposes,” and that may have been partially true. But it appears that Kogan also passed it on to Cambridge Analytica—and in doing so, violated Facebook’s terms…and caused the social network’s largest data leak in history.
The network was immediately criticized when it was revealed that it had known about Kogan’s violations back in 2015. Rather than informing the public, though, Facebook demanded that all the parties involved destroy the information (Some sources were reporting last week that not all the data had in fact been deleted (Nieva, 2018)). Adding to Zuckerberg’s woes is the fact that since the scandal broke, Facebook has lost $50 billion in market capitalization—the biggest two-day drop in its history (Molla, 2018).
While investors are shunning the stock on Wall Street, users are dragging the social platform through the mud online. Some are tweeting their displeasure, like the unhappy Facebook user who prompted Elon Musk to disable the Tesla and SpaceX pages. Some have just stopped using Facebook personally until the dust settles. As more revelations unfold, it’s likely that there will be continued user disenchantment. And Elon Musk may be joined by other companies trending toward reducing or eliminating their Facebook footprints (Fingas, 2018).
After a few days of watching #WheresZuck trend, Facebook’s creator finally came out and apologized, admitting his company’s mistakes and agreeing on the need for better security. Zuckerberg will testify before Congress on the matter and has seemed to favor government regulation, saying, “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated” (Nieva, 2018). University of Michigan Privacy Officer Sol Bermann weighed in saying, “On a more day-to-day level, we all need to think about our privacy needs, wants, and choices when using social media. How much privacy are you willing to give up in return for convenience or personalized service?”
But what does social regulation look like? And how does net neutrality—repealed just last November—fit into the picture? One problem may be structural. Facebook is one of the platforms where today’s political speech and news reporting takes place, and regulation is an inherently political act (Graham, 2018). But further, “data exploitation” is “built into the company’s DNA.” Facebook’s business model depends on harvesting user data and sharing it with app developers and advertisers. It may simply be impossible to prevent data from being shared (Byers, 2018). Other countries might serve as something like an outline, if not an outright blueprint. Worldwide, more governments are focusing legislative efforts on privacy protection. Regulations in the European Union, for example, specify that people have a right to be forgotten. That is, they have the right to request that data about them be deleted (Bermann, 2018). Do we want that here in the U.S.,?
Last year, the country was in turmoil about the internet being more regulated. Now, after an attack on personal privacy, the country is demanding it. However, after repeated security hiccups from across Silicon Valley, we can’t blame them. Does it all add up to the beginning of the end for Facebook?
What does a world without Facebook look like?
Can you imagine it? Facebook becoming a social graveyard full of abandoned accounts and stale content. We watched the fall of MySpace; is Facebook headed for the same fate? While many have jumped on the #DeleteFacebook bandwagon, bidding adieu to a social network that has been a part of your life for years may be easier said than done. For most of Facebook’s 2 billion users, there is no real substitute (CBS News). But, what does a world without Facebook look like? A less informed world? Or a place where everyone is more inclined to use face-to-face communication? Maybe the “fear of missing out” with slowly diminish and everyone will exuberantly express positivity because they do not know if someone has it better and frankly, don’t care! Or—as is more likely—as Facebook replaced MySpace, will another platform come along and take Facebook’s place?
Two billion users jumping ship is pretty unrealistic, and we can’t rule Facebook out just yet. But the trends are troubling, and a data-mining scandal is the last thing Facebook needs. It’s already losing younger teens—U.S. Facebook users in the 12- to 17-year-old demographic declined by 9.9 percent in 2017 (Wagner & Molla, 2018)—and the bad publicity is not encouraging new users to give the platform a try.
It’s too soon to tell what the end result will be, but Facebook is a network designed to rely on users opening up their lives and this mistake may cost them just that.
As members of a university community, in an environment with faculty and research expertise, we are in a unique position to educate ourselves about and discuss the effects of technology on privacy and to contribute to the national discourse on privacy (Bermann, 2018). To learn more about campus resources and cyber-security visit the U-M Safe Computing sites for reliable information about protecting privacy.
Be social. Stay social. #UMSocial
Post written by McKenna Whipple, Social Media Content Strategist at The University of Michigan.
Byers, Dylan. (2018). Mark Zuckerberg has decided to testify before Congress. CNN tech.
CBS News. (2018). Can Facebook restore public trust after Cambridge Analytica scandal? CBS News.
Cooper, Daniel. (2018). Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence, but he didn’t have much to say. Engadget.
Fingas, Joe. (2018). Elon Musk pulls Tesla and SpaceX pages after #DeleteFacebook challenge. Engadget.
Graham, Donald. (2018). Don’t regulate Facebook. The Washington Post.
Greenfield, Patrick. (2018). The Cambridge Analytica files: the story so far. The Guardian.
Meyer, Robinson. (2018). The Cambridge Analytica Scandal, in 3 Paragraphs. The Atlantic.
Molla, Rani. (2018). Facebook has lost nearly $50 billion in market cap since the data scandal. Recode.
Pilkington, Ed & Michel, Amanda. (2012). Obama, Facebook and the power of friendship: the 2012 data election. The Guardian.
Sherr, Ian. (2018). Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and data mining: What you need to know. C Net.
Valdez, Andrea. (2018). Everything You Need To Know About Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. WIRED.
Wagner, Kurt & Molla, Rani. (2018). Facebook lost around 2.8 million U.S. users under 25 last year. 2018 won’t be much better. Recode.