I Got Zucked: Cambridge Analytica May Have My Facebook Data Now

Good job, Zuck! One of my Facebook friends took that garbage quiz. Does Steve Bannon know my birthday now?

ERIN KEANE
T
oday I learned via a mes­sage in my Facebook feed that at least one of my 1,300 friends was among the 270,000 who played along with the now-infa­mous per­son­al­i­ty quiz app “This Is Your Digital Life” in 2014. Designed by psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Aleksandr Kogan, the app scraped pri­vate infor­ma­tion from par­tic­i­pants’ pro­files, which poten­tial­ly includes infor­ma­tion from their Facebook friends — to the tune of an esti­mat­ed 87 mil­lion users — and “improp­er­ly shared” it with Cambridge Analytica, a polit­i­cal data firm found­ed by con­ser­v­a­tive mega-donor Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon, who went on to head up Donald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Whistleblower Christopher Wylie now says Bannon want­ed the Facebook data to sup­port Republican and alt-right can­di­dates for U.S. office.

Because friend­ship appar­ent­ly means nev­er bar­ring your for­mer neigh­bor, your 11th grade study bud­dy or a guy you once worked with four jobs ago from hand­ing over a record of all the ran­dom things you’ve approved of on Mark Zuckerberg’s plat­form, Cambridge Analytica prob­a­bly knows where I live, how old I am, and that I am a total fan­girl for the J. Peterman Company. (My caf­tan game is strong.)

Thanks, Zuck! All that juicy info hand­ed over with­out a fight and Steve Bannon didn’t even send an Edible Arrangement for my birth­day, which he can’t say now he doesn’t know.

We under­stand the impor­tance of keep­ing your data safe,” Facebook tells me with, I assume, a straight face, before detail­ing what Cambridge Analytica could have had on me for the last few years because a friend used their app. “There is more work to do, but we are com­mit­ted to con­fronting abuse and to putting you in con­trol of your pri­va­cy.”

In a post-Snowden land­scape where memes about being spied on by your own per­son­al FBI agent flour­ish, the idea that I could be in con­trol of my own dig­i­tal pri­va­cy is down­right quaint. But this hand-off of my per­son­al infor­ma­tion is as shady as it sounds. While back in 2014, the data-scrap­ing itself didn’t vio­late the platform’s pri­va­cy rules for third-par­ty appli­ca­tions, snitch­ing it out to Steve Bannon did, accord­ing to Facebook.

It’s true that I have no idea how my infor­ma­tion was used, if at all. It’s unclear what psy­cho­graph­ic pro­file can be con­struct­ed from my affin­i­ty for the Jim Henson hol­i­day clas­sic “Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas”; and on the scale of adver­tis­ing-per­suad­able 2016 vot­ers I’m prob­a­bly a “Huma Abedin,” so who knows if the infor­ma­tion Facebook allowed my friend’s app to scrape from my pro­file was ever used for any­thing nefar­i­ous. But that’s not real­ly the point.

Look, I’m not an inno­cent. I know that on a free plat­form like Facebook, I am the prod­uct being pitched to adver­tis­ers. This is an agree­ment I entered into will­ing­ly, and I am actu­al­ly not com­plain­ing about that. According to my records, Facebook already had me pegged as “very lib­er­al,” a fre­quent trav­el­er and an engaged shop­per for its own adver­tis­ing pur­pos­es, which are quite effec­tive as the pairs of shoes I have pur­chased off in-feed ads demon­strate. Take my one-sen­tence rave review of “Black Panther” or my vaca­tion pho­tos from Bogotá and try to sell me more of the same — fine.

I know that every key­stroke and click I make on the inter­net is stored some­where and used by some­one to try to get me to buy some­thing. I grew up fol­low­ing the sto­ry­lines of fic­tion­al car­toon char­ac­ters cre­at­ed by toy com­pa­nies with the sole objec­tive of sell­ing me their plas­tic fig­urine like­ness­es. I have a dis­tinct preschool mem­o­ry of con­scious­ly read­ing the word “McDonald’s” on the sign, after I learned my ABCs and what the big gold­en arched M stands for. I’m an American. Someone’s been try­ing to sell me some­thing since the day I was born.

But allow­ing some­one else to to dig around in our pock­ets with­out our knowl­edge and give what­ev­er they fish out to peo­ple asso­ci­at­ed close­ly with a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign with­out ask­ing first is some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent. Facebook’s fail­ure to ensure such loop­holes were not avail­able for exploita­tion is a breach of trust — how­ev­er thin that trust was in the first place — and car­ries with it a cer­tain amount of moral cul­pa­bil­i­ty at the very least. After all, it was Facebook that con­vinced so many peo­ple to be extreme­ly them­selves online — to become the will­ing prod­uct — in the first place.

Back in the day, before Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat, if you used social plat­forms like mes­sage boards or blog ser­vices or chat rooms, you prob­a­bly used a pseu­do­nym of some sort. Real names were for pro­fes­sion­al lives; if you had an online social life, you used a han­dle, prefer­ably untrace­able to your actu­al iden­ti­ty, to keep your anonymi­ty and to ensure some mea­sure of pri­va­cy when talk­ing to peo­ple you had­n’t ever met face to face. Posting under your full name was the sign of a naïf, hence the endur­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of the 1993 New Yorker car­toon cap­tioned, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Early net­works like Friendster and MySpace, where users could cre­ate per­son­al pro­files, chis­eled away some pri­va­cy para­noia. But one the­o­ry of why Friendster with­ered on the vine is that it lacked exact­ly what made Facebook so suc­cess­ful. Friendster didn’t under­stand that what makes a social net­work strong is its empha­sis on social. As PC’s Peter Pachal writes in this insight­ful autop­sy, Friendster died for a lack of what Facebook end­ed up pio­neer­ing: the news feed.

I remem­ber first log­ging on to [Friendster], and see­ing a big emp­ty pro­file to fill in with pho­tos, per­son­al details, inter­ests, and the like. But once I had a meaty pro­file (right down to my time­ly lament­ing of the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the next thing to do was… what, exact­ly? Sure, there were tes­ti­mo­ni­als for friends, but after writ­ing the half-dozen or so I actu­al­ly want­ed to write, it seemed that the only thing to do on Friendster was pol­ish my pro­file.

When Zuckerberg launched Facebook’s news feed in 2006, it changed the game.

While the site was still attract­ing new peo­ple, he revamped it to ele­vate the news feed’s impor­tance, push­ing apps and box­es to the rear and putting friends’ updates, shares, and dis­cus­sions front and cen­ter. Even the pop­u­lar Facebook sta­tus update became more like a Twitter mes­sage, drop­ping the “so-and-so is eat­ing bacon” for­mat and los­ing its spe­cial promi­nence on pro­file pages.

Naturally, users freaked. But Zuckerberg stuck with his gut, and a fun­ny thing hap­pened. People got used to the new design. They start­ed to miss their apps less and less. They start­ed com­ment­ing on every­thing. And (most) stopped car­ing about how many friends they had. Along the way, Facebook got big­ger than ever.

Facebook’s pop­u­lar­i­ty, then, made an account a stan­dard tool for stay­ing con­nect­ed, and its real-name man­date made attach­ing your first and last name to your online social life the new stan­dard. It’s way more dif­fi­cult to pre­tend to be some­one or some­thing you’re not when your mom, your third grade best friend and the co-work­er from two cubi­cles over are watch­ing, so we became more and more com­fort­able being our full selves on Facebook. We gave up anonymi­ty for the con­ve­nience of hav­ing pret­ty much every­one we knew, or ever did know, avail­able to us on one social plat­form and find­able by name, and now every day it seems we’re find­ing out a new con­se­quence for assum­ing that every­one involved plays by the same trans­paren­cy rules.

In today’s Senate hear­ing, Dick Durbin (D‑IL) asked Zuckerberg if he’d be com­fort­able shar­ing which hotel he stayed in last night. “Um, no, I would not,” said Zuck.

Durbin pressed on. “If you mes­saged any­one this week, would you share with us the names of the peo­ple you mes­saged?”

Senator, no, I would­n’t choose to do that pub­licly here.”

You and me both, Zuck. So where do we go from here?

Cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier, a fel­low with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told the Harvard Gazette last August that indi­vid­ual actions we can take to safe­guard our dig­i­tal pri­va­cy have a rel­a­tive­ly minor impact. “The best rec­om­men­da­tion I have for peo­ple is to get involved in the polit­i­cal process. The best thing we can do as con­sumers and cit­i­zens is to make this a polit­i­cal issue. Force our leg­is­la­tors to change the rules,” he said, because opt­ing out of using dig­i­tal tools entire­ly isn’t an option:

And “buy­er beware” is putting too much onus on the indi­vid­ual. People don’t test their food for pathogens or their air­lines for safe­ty. The gov­ern­ment does it. But the gov­ern­ment has failed in pro­tect­ing con­sumers from inter­net com­pa­nies and social media giants. But this will come around. The only effec­tive way to con­trol big cor­po­ra­tions is through big gov­ern­ment.

Zuckerberg has indi­cat­ed that he’d be open to U.S. cus­tomers hav­ing access to European-style pri­va­cy tools, which could be a start. But it could be too lit­tle too late for many of his prod­ucts — aka peo­ple — who are now reeval­u­at­ing their Facebook use.

Zuckerberg deserves all of the back­lash he’s receiv­ing of late, but it’s not like his is the only site that knows our secrets. For all that Facebook remem­bers about my shop­ping and social habits — to say noth­ing of what my per­son­al FBI agent, to whom I just waved, has seen — Google, the keep­er of my search his­to­ry and my per­son­al email accounts, has the real goods. The thought of it is too great to bear some days, but what’s the alter­na­tive? I’m pret­ty sure I can’t just nuke 20 years of online life and start over as a dog.

Would you delete your Facebook?
Facebook is fac­ing intense scruti­ny for mis­han­dling user data. While Salon’s D. Watkins isn’t call­ing on users to delete the app, in today’s Salon 5, he gives five rea­sons why he’s con­cerned with his pri­va­cy online.