A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the hyperscale data centers that Facebook relies on to handle its userbase of more than 2 billion accounts. With so much information swirling around these enormous structures, it’s easy to assume that any data you provide to the social network will fade away in an ever-increasing crowd. But not only can Facebook access much of the data it collects, the company also routinely shares this information with scholars and researchers. Users consent to this access when they set up an account, even if they don’t realize it.
So when a British institution called Cambridge Analytica approached Facebook in 2014 to conduct research, the social network allowed them to collect user data through an app. Cambridge Analytica eventually gathered private information from more than 50 million accounts. Despite its scholarly sounding name, however, the organization wasn’t a research firm but a political group collecting information about potential voters. This was an explicit violation of Facebook’s policy, which prohibits the sale or transfer of personal data “to any ad network, data broker or other advertising or monetization-related service.” Facebook removed Cambridge Analytica’s app once the social network learned it was in violation of the site’s terms of service. Furthermore, the company said it eliminated the policy that allowed some organizations to gather private data using apps and personality surveys.
But these assurances have done little to calm the anger that many Facebook users are currently directing at the company. After all, the social network didn’t inform any affected users about the situation when they banned Cambridge Analytica in 2015. In fact, there’s a chance Facebook would still be keeping the matter secret if a New York Times investigation hadn’t uncovered it last week. Now legislators in both the U.S. and U.K. are calling for inquiries into the social network that could potentially seek to regulate its behavior. The news also caused Facebook’s stock price to plummet as much as 5 percent in a single day. The company is even facing lawsuits from investors while a “delete Facebook” campaign gains traction on other social media sites. This is all bad news for CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has also faced a lot of criticism for remaining silent about the controversy until yesterday. All this outcry could lead to a mass exodus of users from Facebook, but some experts say the social media site is far too large to be brought down by a scandal like this.
- Will the Cambridge Analytica scandal cause more people to distrust Facebook? How do you think this will affect the company in the long term?
- Do you think Facebook has grown so large that it should face government regulation? Why or why not?
Source: Kevin Granville, “Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens,” The New York Times, March 19, 2018.