Facebook has had a rough week. In the past seven days, four different lawsuits were filed against it, Sonos temporarily left its advertising program, and Elon Musk joined the #DeleteFacebook movement by removing SpaceX’s and Tesla’s profiles from the social media giant’s platform. With Facebook in the throws of a full-blown reputational crisis, students should learn one thing: Their personal data is more valuable than cash, and should be treated as such.
Facebook’s current crisis has been years in the making. In 2015, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University, collected research data through an app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” Individuals were paid to link their Facebook account to the app, and then complete surveys. The app would combine their data into a personality profile that could be used for psychological research. However, Kogan then passed this information on to Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL). Cambridge Analytica, SCL’s political advertising firm, used this data to build personalized ads tailored to individuals. These ads targeted one’s “inner demons,” as described by former Cambridge Analytica employee and whistleblower Christopher Wylie. Both Ted Cruz’s primary campaign and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign bought their services.
Cambridge Analytica is just the most recent example of how dangerous data sharing can be. While only 270,000 people downloaded thisisyourdigitallife onto their phones, Cambridge Analytica was still able to build personality profiles for 50 million Facebook users. Kogan’s app had access to users’ friends lists, which exponentially expanded how many people the app could collect data on. Facebook isn’t entirely to blame for this. If users had been more cautious about who they gave their data to, Kogan’s app wouldn’t have been able to influence the millions of people that it did. Even users who didn’t mind sharing their data with Kogan’s app still implicitly gave it access to all of their friends’ data.
Mark Zuckerberg built his empire on taking individuals’ private information and making it public. Anyone who has seen Jesse Eisenberg’s The Social Network will remember that “The Facebook” started as “Facemash,” a website on which Harvard students ranked the attractiveness of their female peers. Features such as the “like” button have made Facebook incredibly successful at convincing people to share everything online. A 2015 University of California study found that a computer with access to a subject’s Facebook profile was better than a human at making accurate personality predictions.
This is why companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat don’t need to sell subscriptions. Users ‘pay’ for access to their platform with their data, which the companies can then sell to advertisers. Some ad firms pay $1,200 per user for the kind of personal data that Facebook has—a figure that speaks to how valuable this information is. Yet, because the process of giving data away is often so automatic—users are required to accept terms and conditions, and privacy settings are usually off by default—internet users are attuned to giving their information to anyone who asks.
It’s easy to give away personal data online: It’s fun, it’s addictive, and it’s quick. Features like location sharing, purchase tracking, and friend lists make Facebook as interesting and useful as possible; however, they also allow companies to amass an extraordinary amount of personal information. Furthermore, many of these sharing settings are either defaults or are hidden deep within user settings. In order to make this data trade more visible, some have suggested that companies literally pay users for their personal data. But why wait for companies and governments to regulate this data economy? Students can start treating their data like cash right now, by recognizing that each interaction with a website has a price.
The future is going to be built on data, meaning that intelligent consumers must lead the way. While a data economy is still fairly far into our future (although DataCoup, a startup, has started to build a “personal data marketplace”), students don’t need to wait for this future in order to be smart about their interactions with social media. Thinking about Facebook’s awful privacy record should cause people to question how much data they really need to give out. Sure, students may have to stop geotagging their awesome brunch photos, but until Facebook can guarantee that another Cambridge Analytica crisis won’t happen again, they should think about whether documenting their lives is worth the cost.