Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Facebook’s Surveillance Machine

Zeynep Tufekci reacts to Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of Facebook data, in the New York Times:

If Facebook failed to understand that this data could be used in dangerous ways, that it shouldn’t have let anyone harvest data in this manner and that a third-party ticking a box on a form wouldn’t free the company from responsibility, it had no business collecting anyone’s data in the first place. But the vast infrastructure Facebook has built to obtain data, and its consequent half-a-trillion-dollar market capitalization, suggest that the company knows all too well the value of this kind of vast data surveillance.

Should we all just leave Facebook? That may sound attractive but it is not a viable solution. In many countries, Facebook and its products simply are the internet. Some employers and landlords demand to see Facebook profiles, and there are increasingly vast swaths of public and civic life — from volunteer groups to political campaigns to marches and protests — that are accessible or organized only via Facebook.

One uniquely terrible attribute that these companies share is their willingness to exploit developing nations as test beds for techniques they hope to use elsewhere. From the Times story that broke the news of the way Cambridge Analytica acquired Facebook user data in the United States:

Mr. Nix, a brash salesman, led the small elections division at SCL Group, a political and defense contractor. He had spent much of the year trying to break into the lucrative new world of political data, recruiting Mr. Wylie, then a 24-year-old political operative with ties to veterans of President Obama’s campaigns. Mr. Wylie was interested in using inherent psychological traits to affect voters’ behavior and had assembled a team of psychologists and data scientists, some of them affiliated with Cambridge University.

The group experimented abroad, including in the Caribbean and Africa, where privacy rules were lax or nonexistent and politicians employing SCL were happy to provide government-held data, former employees said.

There isn’t any evidence that Cambridge Analytica used Facebook user data in these experiments. But the way that Facebook has made itself a de facto component of the communications infrastructure of developing nations is troubling as well. Massive amounts of user data from Facebook initiatives like Internet.org is being scooped up and held by a giant company in California, largely because many in the developing world have few options for getting online. It’s exploitative and shameful.

It’s also worth pointing out that lax American privacy laws and a weak regulatory environment also enabled Facebook’s mass data collection. If Facebook were instead a European company, they would have faced much stricter limitations on what kind of data they could collect and how they could use it. That probably means they wouldn’t have been as successful, but it also means that there likely wouldn’t be a gigantic database of attributes about one-third of the world’s population in the hands of a single company. Something to think about.