After a rough 2017 that saw Facebook on the defensive about its role in the proliferation of “fake news”, the social network finds itself in hot water once again. Facebook’s recent data-handling scandal has led to a backlash and further questions about the company’s ability to protect its data, and, ultimately, its users.
The Data Scandal
Facebook’s latest data-security problems began in 2015 in a seemingly innocuous fashion. Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, hired a researcher to mine Facebook data that had been compiled through a personality-quiz app. The app had been used by about 270,000 people, who, in the process, had agreed to have their data collected. However, the app gave Cambridge Analytica access not only to the data of the users who took the quiz, but also that of their Facebook friends. It’s believed that the data of at least 50 million Facebook users was compromised. And to make matters worse, Facebook was reportedly made aware of this as far back as 2015 and chose not to alert users.
Cambridge Analytica assured Facebook that the data was for research purposes and that there was no commercial or political motivation for its collection. Upon learning about the app’s capabilities, Facebook shut it down and removed it from the platform. The researcher who developed the app then handed the data over to Cambridge Analytica – despite his assurances to Facebook that he would not. Cambridge Analytica also worked on US President Donald Trump’s election campaign, and the common belief is that the data was indeed used for political purposes.
The extent of the scandal seems to widen almost daily. The bad press and a trending #DeleteFacebook hashtag has seen Facebook lose $100 billion of its market value in less than two weeks – devastating numbers that prove that the tech giant is vulnerable, and that users are in control of its profits and dominance.
The Value of Users
A social network and its value to investors is dependent on its user base; Facebook needs people to sign up and be active so that it can package that data to advertisers and other companies willing to pay for access to those users. Even a slight drop in users can result in the loss of millions, if not billions, of dollars.
The product that Facebook sells is its users, so it needs them to maintain its prominence. A data-management scandal of this calibre is a public relations nightmare and could do irreparable damage both to Facebook’s reputation and its stock price.
Facebook has rolled out a series of provisions aimed at curbing malicious apps from mining user data. These solutions include:
- The network will notify users when apps access their data.
- Through simple language and visual representation, the company will convey to users how their data is being used
- Facebook will work with countries to ensure their privacy laws are adhered to
- The company will better monitor all political activity to make sure that things are done legally and with integrity
Data breaches and the mishandling of personal information are a serious risk to users. Not only can the data be used to interfere with democratic elections, but it can also be sold to other parties and used however those parties see fit. The responsibility lies with Facebook and other social networks to make sure they protect their users and are willing to prioritize the security of their users’ data and the integrity of their platform over profits.
Rob Shapiro | Contributing Writer