Who is to blame? Cambridge Analytica? Facebook? Users ourselves?

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We are rightfully incensed over the alleged use of online behavioral data to create psychographic profiles and target us users on the basis of our own personality. But wake up and smell who traded their privacy for convenience in the first place.

We live in a strange era where we care intensely about our privacy and simultaneously bandy it about on the most public of platforms — the social media. | AP/Imaging

 

Silicon Valley has its own rules. It’s the new economy, after all. Traditional valuation doesn’t necessarily apply. The companies which are the most valuable are the companies with the most information, not necessarily the most products, or the most sales. ‘Number of Daily Active Users’, ‘Time spent’, ‘Level of engagement’ and ‘Behavioral insights’ are the new measures of value.

These companies are valued on the basis of the data that they are harvesting off us and, consequently, how well they know us. They are valued on the basis of how deeply they have infiltrated our private lives. Strip away all the financial jargon and you will realise that the primary reason why the market values these companies so highly is that they have built up an astronomical database of user data that can be leveraged and monetised.

In slightly different terms, when we log into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon or Google, we aren’t customers using a product — we become the product. Our lives, our activities, our deepest darkest secrets, our cravings, our fears, our voyeurism — crystallised into ‘data points’. And if that wasn’t enough, it is ‘social’. So, we help these companies grow their data by connecting with friends, and pulling exponentially more people on board this mass data harvester. We make our own decisions but have willingly chosen to expose our lives, our likes, dislikes, our friends and their lives to massive Big Data Crunchers. Why? Because it is convenient. Because it was ‘free’. Yes, because instead of charging someone a huge amount of money to have access to our personal lives and information, we willingly gave it away in exchange for ‘convenience’. For the opportunity to stay in touch with friends. Actually, scratch that; it was for the opportunity to peek into other peoples lives. And for the opportunity to project an image of oneself to all of one’s acquaintances. Zuckerberg made his billions not by writing killer code — he made his money by understanding just how desperate we are for approval, just how voyeuristic we can be, and how little we value our own privacy when offered ease in exchange.

 

 

Silicon Valley has a particular talent for preachy spiels. Once we look past the Valleyspeak quotes like ‘Making the World a Better Place’, we can see this exchange for exactly what it is — an exchange of information for convenience. It is a choice that we made... a sort of Faustian deal. Technically, they informed us. But did we really read all the legal gobbledegook before clicking ‘I Accept’?

 

 

Zuckerberg, that master of spin, in a post on Facebook in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica data breach, attempts to mollify, apologise, reassure and preach at the same time. He tries to reflect the anger that Facebook users have been venting when he talks about how his company “doesn’t deserve to serve” users if they cannot keep their data safe. He goes on to try and reassure us by telling us that ‘corrective action’ was taken years ago (after the breach) and that this sort of thing could not happen again. The underlying theme is that Facebook serves us (which is the exactly backwards — in reality, we serve Facebook) and that they are a responsible and trusted organisation who have suffered a data breach. Those of us who ‘felt unsafe’ because an unauthorised agency had gained access to our data could now be ‘reassured’ that our trusted friend Mark solved the data breach problem. Except that if you scratch the surface, you can expose the flaws in the logic.

For a start, he didn’t tell us why his company was silent about the Cambridge Analytica story for as long as they were. If indeed it was ‘our’ information that he was guarding like a faithful, trustworthy watchman (because he believes that by ‘serving’ us he is making the world a better place), then he would have alerted us as soon as the breach occurred. The reality, as it emerges, is that unethical data trawling by app developers was something of an open secret. By their own admission, Facebook attempted to persuade Cambridge Analytica to delete the data. And they only responded when they were forced to, when it all blew up in their faces, and when their share price took a hit. Some experts are of the view that it is beginning to look as if the flaw is systemic, and that the CA data breach isn’t a one-off blip, as the folks at Facebook would have us believe.

Few people got on Facebook because they trusted Facebook with their deepest darkest secrets — most people got on Facebook because their friends were on Facebook. It wasn’t really a well-thought-out decision, robust in logic. It was an impulsive, almost illogical choice in most cases. It was a sticky, addictive, fun way of connecting and sharing our lives. The truth is, we suspended our rationality when we signed up, when we didn’t really read the disclaimer, when we didn’t exchange queries and emails with this company before entrusting it with so much personal information. It was easy... and fun... and addictive as hell. So we didn’t give them our information because we trusted them or their ethical standards. We signed up on a whim, because our friends were signed up. It was really that simplistic a drive.

 

The generation that uses social media never really had to fight for civil rights or liberties. And because we have never had to fight for our freedom and privacy, we do not value it enough.

 

If you follow this line of reasoning, it doesn’t really matter who has this very personal, private information about private civilian citizens. The real problem is that such a database exists. If it exists, the chances are that it will be misused. And it only exists because we are ok with it, because we willingly barter our freedom and privacy away without a thought or care in the world.

And so, to those who are outraged about Cambridge Analytica, I ask you to consider an alternative hypothetical scenario. Assume that Cambridge Analytica paid a whopping large sum of money to Facebook and acquired all the information legally. Or what if Cambridge Analytica bought enough stake in the company to warrant a position on the board? When such large sums of money and vast swathes of data are involved, the best coders and statisticians will engage the best lawyers to find ways and means to make it happen. Cambridge Analytica will still have access to your information — information that they will sell or use in any way they choose to profit from. Is a data sale any different from a data breach, as far as you are concerned? The only difference is that Facebook makes a fortune in a sale, but doesn’t when it is stolen.

Or consider another hypothetical scenario where Facebook itself diversified (very quietly and obscurely) into professional political campaign management. No data breach. But your data is being used by the very same people who bought it from CA. Are you better off?

Or perhaps consider a hypothetical scenario where Mark Zuckerberg decides to run for President. Again, no data breach. But you have a candidate who knows his electorate better than any candidate in history. Unfair advantage? Manipulating the electorate? Are you any better off?

 

 

Back home in India, I have been amused by the charges and counter-charges being bandied about by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party about who used the services of Cambridge Analytica. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to come to know that both of them hired the firm for availing its user/voter analytics research. The stakes are so high and the data is so thorough, complete and personal, that even if one of them felt any pangs of conscience about using the data, the thought or fear of their rival approaching CA would drive them to use CA’s services anyway. And, lets face it, buying or using dubiously acquired data from a consulting firm to help in political campaigns would not feature in the list of the ‘1,000 most Heinous Crimes Committed by Political Parties in India’.

 

 

Perhaps the saddest fallout of this entire fiasco is the revelation of just how little we value our freedom and privacy. Perhaps we take it for granted. The generation that uses social media never really had to fight for civil rights or liberties. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, to us, is a chapter in a history book. And because we have never had to fight for our freedom and privacy, we do not value it enough. We trade it in for the opportunity to stay in touch with an old school crush, to impress our friends, or keep tabs on our relatives. Any outrage that we feel towards Cambridge Analytica or Facebook must first be directed inwards.

And yes, in case you are wondering, I do appreciate the sheer deliciousness of the irony in sharing an article about the perils and evils of social media on social media itself.

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