Facebook users give Facebook broad authority to track their internet activity. Most major sites have the Facebook Pixel installed, which helps the site leverage its own visitor data to more intelligently advertise on Facebook. Facebook also uses that data in all sorts of ways. They map behavior by categorizing the sites visited, by purchase and transaction history, by what kind of apps a user installs. Facebook then anonymizes all the data and sells it to advertisers looking to find new customers.
While intrusive, no one cares that Facebook does this because the only way it effects them is through a newsfeed that shows incredibly relevant advertisements.
And people trust Facebook isn’t actually capable of packaging the information in a way that threatens individual privacy or security.
It gets tricky when Facebook allows publishers and app creators to harvest user data. In the case of Cambridge Analytica, CA purchased data from a personality quiz app. Users were voluntarily downloading an app and opting into sharing their Facebook data with a researcher who sold the data to Cambridge Analytica – which is against Facebook’s terms of service. But is it unethical? I don’t know.
What if instead of selling the data, the researcher started company that got acquired by Cambridge Analytica? CA would then own all the customer data, and it’s hard to argue that acquisitions are unethical. And acquisitions solely for user data are commonplace albeit not frequently highlighted.
There’s also a story floating that Facebook was aware of the Obama campaign harvesting user data to build out the entire social graph to better craft advertisements for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. The story goes to say that Facebook allowed Obama to do it because they supported his campaign and allowed them do do things they wouldn’t have allowed anyone else to do.
Can Facebook play favorites in politics? Sure. That’s their prerogative. As long as they don’t pretend they’re an objective source.
If you’re protective over your internet behavior and don’t want targeted ads, log out of Facebook when you browse other web sites. Don’t use the “login through Facebook” feature many websites offer. Delete your Facebook if you want. Vote with your feet – it’s the only way to incite a change in behavior.
This all just makes me look forward to decentralized social networks, as I think it’s foolish to rely on a private company with so much data to fight the broad overreach of a peeping NSA that stamps their own FISA warrants.
Facebook is a good product that adds value to the time I spend online. They just have a PR problem as they’re now the target of outrage coming from the very same political party they’ve enabled over the last decade.