The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook Scandal and the Coming Data Bust

From today’s New York Times:

The queasy truth at the heart of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is so far the company’s defining disgrace of 2018, is that its genesis became scandalous only in retrospect. The series of events that now implicate Facebook began in 2014, in plain view, with a listing on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, where users can complete small tasks for commensurately modest sums of cash. In exchange for installing a Facebook app and completing a survey — in the process granting the app access to parts of your Facebook profile — you would get around a dollar. Maybe two.

This was a great deal, at least by the standards of the time. Facebook users were then accustomed to granting apps permission to see their personal data in exchange for much less. It was the tail end of a Facebook era defined by connected apps: games like FarmVille, Candy Crush and Words With Friends; apps that broadcast your extra-Facebook activities, like Spotify and Pinterest; and apps that were almost explicitly about gathering as much useful data as possible from users, like TripAdvisor’s Cities I’ve Visited app, which let you share a digital pushpin map with your friends.

Most of these apps, when installed, demanded permission to access “your profile info,” which could include things like your activity, birthday, relationship status, interests, religious and political views, likes, education and work history. They could also collect information about users’ friends, multiplying their reach. In providing a marketplace for such apps, Facebook made it easy for users to extend their extraordinarily intimate relationship with the site to thousands of third-party developers. One of them turned out to be connected to Cambridge Analytica, which was using the data for right-wing political campaigns — a fact that was lucidly and widely reported as early as 2015 but promptly lost in the roiling insanity of primary season. (As of Facebook’s most recent admission, data was collected on as many as 87 million users.)

Not that more exposure in the news cycle would have mattered much back then. It was self-evidently absurd to grant a virtual-farming game access to your religious views, but that’s just how the platform worked at the time, and so we got used to it, much in the same way we got used to conducting our private lives on any other corporate platform. (When Gmail first started in 2004, the fact that it placed ads based on the contents of users’ emails was considered invasive. That feeling passed; Google continued scanning consumer email until 2017, and Gmail now has more than a billion users.) Still, these individually trivial decisions never gave us cause to confront just how much we had come to trust Facebook.

Read the complete article here.