Facebook, Data and the "Real" World


If you are in the UK and haven’t heard the news surrounding Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the data breach that has brought forth the #DeleteFacebook on twitter, then the rock you are hiding under must be quite large and pretty cosy. This is big news for multiple reasons: another huge data breach that undermines international privacy laws, another corporation trying to cover its tracks, and another instance of powerful people exploiting weaknesses for personal gain.

 But how does this news affect us in the “real” world? Why should we care? And what can be done to stop this sort of situation arising time and again?

 I will begin at the beginning of the story with a man, Christopher Wylie, unassuming in looks and demeanour, who saw fit to blow the whistle on a company he worked for. This is never something anyone takes lightly. To metaphorically throw an employer under the bus could be career suicide, so we must applaud him, and anyone like him, for their actions. What is most concerning to me is that it seems like the wrong people are being targeted in this investigation. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, has been called before the UK Parliament. Dr Aleksandr Kogan, the man responsible for the code behind the data harvest, has also been forced to face public scrutiny for his role in the events, yet it was not his idea. As a developer, I also find it hard to believe that he alone was responsible for all code used. In this article by the BBC, Dr Kogan refers to “we” on multiple occasions, implying that there was a team, but more importantly claims that the team he was working with were given assurances that the work they were doing was all above board.

 So where does the blame lie? With any such story, the place to look is at the very top. The Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica has been suspended as of Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 for allegations regarding offers of creating smear campaigns against clients’ opposition. However, Cambridge Analytica is not even at the top of this hideous mess, but rather Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL). How much blame should this company take? How much blame should Facebook take for allowing such breaches to pass through their systems?

 The simple answer is that many people are to blame. Those that wrote the code should take some blame as they would have known the capabilities of their product. Their managers should take some, too, for allowing such code to be written. But the most important people to blame are those that had the idea in the first place, and those who allowed it to happen. The CEOs and board members of a company that knowingly wanted to harvest incredible amounts of personal information under false pretences, to either use for themselves or sell to other interested parties, as well as the legal team of that firm who knowingly bypassed the law, thinking that they would get away with it.

 The upshot of this catastrophic situation has affected many. The links between Cambridge Analytica and the Trump White House Campaign are clear, as reported here by The Financial Times. The company was hired by the campaign to provide analytics and targeted marketing via Facebook. This is not Facebook’s fault, even though they should be held responsible for allowing companies to access data they themselves have claimed will not be accessible through 3rd party websites.

 Should we #DeleteFacebook? Probably not, as social media privacy is as much our own responsibility as it is the platform we are using. If you would like to know more about securing your social media accounts, here are some useful links:

How To Manage You Social Media Privacy Settings

Protect Yourself and Your Data When Using Social Media Sites

11 Simple Ways to Protect Your Privacy

 In the “real” world we should all know to be careful about what petitions we sign, what news we read to know the facts before making our own judgement, and who we interact with online. Think about your safety, as well as the safety of your friends, before you take part in a 3rd party quiz. But also hold the right people accountable when something goes wrong.

 Stay safe, stay vigilant, but don’t let circumstances like these dictate your online presence.