April 4, 2018

Too Much Information?

It’s been entertaining to watch the Cambridge Analytica story over the Iast week. When it broke, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was a scandal of some sort. Basically this company used personal data from Facebook to craft political messages that would all but guarantee the election of Donald Trump. It’s certainly not their first rodeo either. They’ve got extensive experience in other campaigns, hut this one was one of the most prolific. The company has since been banned from the platform as they acquired the data inappropriately. The damage has been done though.

What stuns me is that it’s taken this long for someone to figure out they could use this sort of social media information to manipulate the views and opinions of the people. What we now know about the 2016 election is just the warm-up exercises. Sure, the, use of “personal” information on Facebook to craft messages, fake or otherwise, that would ensure the formation an echo chamber is being decried by everyone. Just wait until the 2020 election in the United States. You’ve got to know that others will be ready to fill Cambridge’s shoes. The technology of the enemy always seems to find its way into everyone’s hands after the war. This tactic will be no different.

This does provide an interesting lesson about social media, and perhaps a sobering wake-up call about information ownership. When I heard about this story, I wasn’t shocked the information wag gleaned from Facebook users. Users who had downloaded or taken a personality test shared with the authors a lot of personal information. The app was just a Trojan horse in this cage. If you’re a Facebook user, think about the number of times you’ve played a game or taken One of the many tests you see. Did you also notice (or at least I have) that those tests seemed to have died down in popularity after November 2016? I don’t see them popping up anymore.

Let’s be clear about one important fact: Facebook was never designed for those who gave any attention to privacy. It was designed to be an open platform for sharing anything with all of your friends. Throughout the history of Facebook, privacy has been an afterthought. There was a period of time when their data policies ran afoul of Canadian privacy laws, and it wasn’t until the government pressured Facebook that we saw change get enacted. From the very beginning privacy was just not a priority for the platform. Every decision and feature implemented since reflects this.

Ever since the first sweepstakes ballot was created, companies have sought ways to figure out who is purchasing their goods and services. Information has been power long before the PC graced the desks of millions. Facebook doesn’t run on donations or subscriptions. All that infrastructure has to be paid for somehow. The day I signed up for Facebook, I knew I was trading my personal information as the admission price to the show. In any economic system, there’s a trade of goods. My personal information’s value must outweigh the cost in providing the platform for my use without any other fees. In other words, I’m trading my info for access to Facebook. I am under no illusions as to what privacy to expect: none. The whole service basically runs on advertising revenue. How can you possibly expect any form of privacy? Yes, there are legal limits on what a company can do with data it collects from you. But those limits aren’t exactly exhaustive.

I’ve always maintained that if you give up your personal information in exchange for something free, don’t be shocked if that information is put to some sort of use, especially when in the hands of a private company. It’s even more true with these online surveys and apps that run on top of social media platforms. What masquerades as an innocuous survey about which of your friends is your secret twin brother could be a market research survey designed to figure out if you are on a politician’s side and if not, what could influence your opinion on the matter.

The other idea to consider when it comes to your personal information online is not just the company that owns it. Yes, they’re subject to laws and regulations they must comply with. You know who isn’t? Someone who breaches the security of that company and makes off with a database or set of files with your information on it. It turns out that laws don’t do much to stop criminals, especially ones that don’t reside in the same country. I’m not so worried about Facebook having my personal info. I’m more concerned about what might happen if a hostile entity (such as a foreign government that doesn’t like Canada much) got hold of legally or otherwise.

This is also why I’m generally against expansions in government surveillance of citizens. There’s the obvious civil liberty discussion, sure. Equally important is what happens if the government suffers a data breach. Even if you believe a company or government is completely benevolent and will never do wrong with the data you provide it or it collects from you (with or without your knowledge), you should fear what may happen if someone not authorized to access or acquire that data happens to get their hands on it. Or what could happen if someone from within accesses your data out of curiosity and declines to report their snoop to their boss.

Where do we go from here? Do we completely unplug, ditch social media, and take up life as analog hermits? Certainly not. I would argue, even with the downsides and loss of privacy, that social media and the Internet at large are positives for the human race. These mediums allow for unprecedented flow of knowledge and information. They’ve done away with the gatekeepers of industries such as music production. Everyone has a voice. It’s even used as a tool to fact—check and keep our leader’s statements in check. What we must consider are the trade—offs we make. Blind ignorance is no excuse in this world. Nor is it effective to be paralyzed by paranoia.

When you are asked for personal information, ask yourself why you are about to hand it out. Check yourself. Would you be okay with that company doing whatever they want with your info? Do you want the whole world to potentially find out about your activities? Social circles are tighter than ever before. That or the Internet and social media makes them seem tighter. I’m one professional connection removed from our Prime Minster, Justin Trudeau. That’s pretty tight. Perhaps this is all a reminder for us to be more mindful. Mindful that what we post may be used against us or in ways we never anticipated. Mindful that nothing in life is truly free.

Finally, it’s also a reminder that just because you read it on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true. Although it is nice to be the President of Iceland. That is definitely a fact.


Also published on Medium.

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