Should You Be Worried About The Facebook Data Breach?

Should You Be Worried About The Facebook Data Breach?

This week it was confirmed that data analytics company Cambridge Analytica unethically acquired information from around 50m Facebook users in order to influence American voters, targeting certain posts to their accounts in an attempt to warp their political beliefs. How, exactly, was this able to happen – and more importantly, should we all be deleting our Facebook accounts because of it? Here’s everything you need to know about the Cambridge Analytica scandal…

What Is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica is a company that, on a simplistic level, “uses data to change audience behaviour”. The Guardian revealed over the weekend that, in 2014, the company harvested data from over 50m Facebook users for the purpose of identifying voter groups in the US election and designing targeted messages to influence their opinion. It collected the details of Americans who voluntarily took a personality test, but then also gathered data from those people’s Facebook friends. It was harvested by UK-based academic Aleksandre Kogan and his company Global Science Research via an app on the site. Kogan then had a deal to share the information with Cambridge Analytica, who built a software programme that would help with the influencing of voters. Only, according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie, the majority of this information was taken without permission.

The programme designed by the company would know what kind of messaging you would be susceptible to, and where you’d consume it. They would look at how many times they’d need to target you in order to change how you think about something. Wylie called it a “full service propaganda machine.”

Who Is Christopher Wylie?

Wylie is the 28-year-old Canadian former Cambridge Analytica employee who, in his own words, ended up creating “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool”. He worked with the Guardian for a year to expose the scandal, confessing that he had helped build the profiling system the company used to solicite the illegally harvested private information of Facebook users.

What Is Cambridge Analytica’s Connection To Donald Trump?

Hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer gave $15m in funding to Cambridge Analytica. Mercer, who is a key Trump supporter and donor, also funded the right-wing website Breitbart. He was introduced to the company by Breitbart editor Steve Bannon, who was also on its board between 2014 and 2016. It was Bannon who led the last phase of Trump’s election campaign, serving as chief strategist.

On its website, Cambridge Analytica talks about analysing data in order to identify the most persuadable voters and the issues they cared about. It would then target them, sending them messages to “move them to action” using online advertising and social media. But thanks to Wylie’s whistleblowing, we now know much of the data came from profiles that the company was not supposed to have access to.

Why Is This So Bad?

Facebook users are, on the whole, unaware of just how far Facebook goes to sell you. Not selling things to you, but sell you, as a person, to third parties. Essentially, social media makes money by looking through your information and selling it on. Their profit comes from profiling you, and then targeting posts to you that’ll keep you engaged. The more you use the platform, the more data you provide, and so the more information they have, the more precise the targeting, the more valuable that information is.

This is nothing new, and all your favourite social media companies do this. Many will recognise this kind of manipulation – the way a dress you were just looking at on the Topshop website will suddenly crop up in your Facebook sidebar, or how gig tickets you were searching for will appear as a picture when you scroll through your Instagram feed.

This seems like a relatively harmless way of using your data, but in the same way it uses data from your Topshop visit, it’ll use your data from apps like Tinder to help create your voter profile. The way third-party companies like Cambridge Analytica gather your data from social media – either through purchasing it, or using a different app you’ve signed up for – is less transparent. They use your information to figure out what you’re responsive to in order to subliminally manipulate you, in this case, for political gain.

It’s a slow burner, but using fake profiles and communities, leaving targeted posts on your feed that appeal to your profile and appear to be from users just like you, aim to subconsciously change your behaviour and influence how you make decisions. And this doesn’t just occur on Facebook. Because bigger platforms tend to buy our smaller ones – like Facebook buying Instagram and Whatsapp – even if you’re not on one platform, it can affect you on another. The more social media you use, the more data you’re providing, and that data can be shared easily between social media companies.

Has Facebook responded?

Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica while it investigates, but has denied a data breach. While they had given Kogan permission to access the information, the fact that he shared it with Cambridge Analytica means he broke the terms of service. “People knowingly provided their information. No systems were infiltrated, and no passwords of sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked,” the platform insists.
Cambridge Analytica and Kogan have both stated they did nothing wrong. But this isn’t the first time the company has been in trouble – in November it was reported that Nix had contacted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to ask if he could assist with the release of emails linked to Hillary Clinton. 

What Can We Do?

News of the breach has got some Facebook users concerned about their level of privacy on the platform. Before you do anything drastic, it’s important to know that the feature that allowed Cambridge Analytica to get the information is no longer on the site. And as of 2015, Facebook apps can only gather information from users who have directly signed up to them, rather than asking for permission to access data from your friends’ profiles as well as your own.

But that doesn’t mean that apps you’ve enabled still can’t get a significant amount of information from your account. There is an ‘Apps settings’ page on Facebook, where you can manage the apps you’ve given access to. On this page, you’ll see all of the apps you’re currently logged into with Facebook – and any you don’t recognise can be deactivated from your account by clicking the ‘X’.

You can also edit the settings under ‘Apps others use’ header a bit lower down the same page. This will show you your privacy settings for the modern version of the feature that was used by Cambridge Analytica. The information others can hand over on your behalf includes religious beliefs, education, political views, date of birth and your interests. You can uncheck all of these boxes.

The more extreme action is deleting your Facebook completely, but it’s not as easy as you think. Deactivating your account will disable your profile, but not remove any of your data from Facebook’s servers. To actually delete your Facebook account takes a bit more digging. You must go to the Facebook help document, ‘How do I delete my account?’, and click ‘Let us know’ in order to get to the page which actually allows you to permanently delete your Facebook account. But to save you that hassle, you can click here to skip all that.  It will deactivate your account for two weeks, and only then will it start a 90-day process that will see all your data deleted from your account. So by July, you’ll finally be free of Facebook’s shackles. 

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