Everyone knows Facebook has a problem. The headlines are relentless and appear day after day. If you only read the headlines, though, you might have an uneasy feeling, without knowing exactly why.
Here is a primer on what’s been happening recently, what’s gone wrong, and how it might be addressed.
Facebook collects a lot of information about everyone who uses it. Or to be more precise, we give Facebook the information. We provide a partial biography when we join. Then we create a network of Facebook friends, who have also provided hints about their preferences. Then we “like” some of their posts and share other posts with our network. Now Facebook knows a good amount of what we say we value, and it can discern more about our leanings by who we interact with, and how.
Most of us provide that information without thinking too much about it. But we assume, perhaps naively, that Facebook will keep the information safe. At the same time, Facebook makes money by analyzing our information so it can sell advertising targeted specifically toward us. Facebook is using our preferences so others can sell us stuff.
As it turns out, people are generally OK with that proposition. What we might question is Facebook giving that information to other companies. Well, it turns out that is what happens, even to this day.
Who else is looking at you?
The recent big news stories concern such sharing. In 2014, a company enticed more than 200,000 people to fill out a quiz on Facebook and then download an app. The app scoured data from all of the contacts of those original 200,000. In the end, information from about 50 million people was downloaded and most of them had no idea that Facebook had allowed it.
The original company sold the information about those 50 million users to another firm, Cambridge Analytica, which was controlled by supporters of Donald Trump. After the presidential election, Cambridge Analytica claimed its analysis of all that Facebook information had helped Trump win.
The claim caused people to look into what had been going on. And although Facebook no longer allows companies to gather its users’ information without at least some type of notification, the outrage began.
The investigations begin
Several government organizations, including the Federal Trade Commission, Congressional committees, and state attorneys general have launched (or are threatening to launch) investigations. Facebook users are leaving the site, and the company’s stock is losing value.
But, in the end, it’s your fault. You like sharing information with your friends. You comment and click the “Like” button with abandon. Now Facebook knows enough about you so that the information, if analyzed cleverly, can be used to predict your behavior. Although founder Mark Zuckerberg said this week that he will put in place changes to improve privacy, Facebook is not expected to change the foundation of how it does business. It makes money by knowing information about you.
We can be more careful
The information will continue to sit in Facebook’s vaults. Perhaps waiting to be hacked. At the moment, there is probably little or nothing the rest of us can do about that.
What we can do, however, is spend time cleaning up our accounts and settings so that we don’t willingly or unknowingly share much of our lives with others. This guide by Wired gives exhaustive instructions on how to clean up after yourselves on Facebook specifically and online generally. After doing so, you will be better protected.
Because Facebook is hardly the only site that gathers information about consumers, however, and since we will continue to use the Internet, we will continue to be exposed. Probably sooner, rather than later, we will start reading more stories about how our data has been traded, stolen or used in ways we didn’t envision when we signed in that day.