SALT LAKE CITY — The meme shows a boy sitting at his computer, saying, "I don't even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday." At his shoulder is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, saying "You had pancakes.
It's a punchline that works, given recent revelations about how the world's biggest social network trades in the personal data of its estimated 2 billion users.
Although Facebook has weathered controversy over its practices before, news that a British data company hired by Donald Trump's presidential campaign obtained personal information of about 50 million Facebook users has sparked a fresh wave of "techlash" — distrust of the technology companies that have transformed our lives in less than a generation.
But the moral panic rising from Facebook's connection with Cambridge Analytica is not just about two companies, but about the massive amounts of data that Americans surrender every time we use our phones, review a restaurant, respond to invitations online or search for the perfect vacation house.
Almost anytime we use our smartphones or the internet, someone is making money off the information we convey. That information may be used simply to target us with ads, but it is often combined with other source of information to create a disturbingly larger picture of us as individuals and also of our families.
“The fact that I bought a pair of socks is not that damaging, but if suddenly you know everything I purchase, where I live, what sites I like to visit, all the public data associated with me, including my personal address, my business address, my contact information … suddenly you have a lot of really important data about me. And I probably would change how I felt about you having that data if I knew how much data you actually have,” said Charlotte Tschider, an international cybersecurity and privacy consultant in Minneapolis who teaches at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
(Deseretnews.comlooks at user data to better understand how people use its website and to enhance the advertising experience, said Burke Olsen, the company's head digital officer.)
Even as companies are quietly trading in data, their policies obscured by complex "terms of service" disclosures, Americans are willingly surrendering our privacy in unprecedented ways — from signing up for supermarket discount cards that track our purchases to unquestioningly giving store cashiers our phone numbers when asked.
Amid calls for increasing regulation of data brokering, some Californians are pushing for new laws that would make it easier for that state's residents to limit access to their data. Elsewhere, a new climate of concern has given rise to a new hashtag — #cyberwoke — that is a call to be more diligent about protecting our family's information.
With Zuckerberg set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 11, Facebook and its practices will face more scrutiny, but the ongoing controversy also raises the question of consumer culpability.
Companies that sell data are required to disclose this information, usually given in the ubiquitous "terms of service" that consumers accept, sometimes without reading. So are technology companies to blame for the personal data flooding the market, or are we?
Is Facebook 'evil'?
If anyone is wearing a black hat in the current climate of big-data distaste, it's Zuckerberg, the 33-year-old CEO who has defended his business' "rational model" that enables Facebook to be available to everyone for free.
“The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people can’t afford to pay,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with Vox.
Zuckerberg has famously pledged to give away 99 percent of his wealth, but that hasn't stopped critics from calling his company evil. Apple CEO Tim Cook and the American Civil Liberties Union are among Facebook's critics, the latter unleashing a hailstorm of tweets questioning the company's businesses practices.
Zuckerberg has also taken heat for past statements that appear to contradict Facebook’s practices, including telling a reporter for the BBCin 2009 that users own the information they post and Facebook would not sell it. In addition to serious issues such as election tampering and live-streaming of suicides, his network has been accused of encouraging narcissism and polarization.
Rachel Botsman, an Australian author who studies societal trust and how it is changing, said Facebook isn’t “evil” — "there are many good people working there" — but it’s also not blameless in what has happened.
“The fascinating part about the unravelling Facebook story is trying to figure out what’s the real story causing such a brouhaha. … So why does it feel different this time? Users are fed up of the company’s defensiveness. Blame, denial and silence further erodes trust,” Botsman, the author of “Who Can You Trust?” and “What’s Mine is Yours,” said in an email.
“The massive tech platforms are the new institutions with enormous influence in shaping someone’s worldview about who they can trust. We can no longer view them as innovative tech disruptors. Platforms are trying to figure out their role," she said. "I think it’s a misconceived and dangerous position when platforms insist they are a neutral technology pathway facilitating connections between people.”
Tschider, the owner of Cybersimple Security in Minneapolis, said she believes the Cambridge Analytica story blew up because the people involved crossed a line that most companies only come near. “I don’t think anyone has ever trusted Facebook. We see it as a necessary evil, a necessity, but I don’t know that we’ve ever thought ‘Facebook isn’t using my data,’” Tschider said.
Companies that deal in data have escaped repercussions because of the fine print in “terms of service” disclosures, which one study at Carnegie Mellon University found would take 25 days each year if we read every one we encounter.
“It’s really hard for us to appreciate what might happen to data downstream.”
Your life, their business
Facebook gets most of the heat because of its outsized presence in social media. It has more than 2 billion monthly users, compared to YouTube's 1.5 billion, Instagram's 800 million and Twitter's 328 million.
But an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 companies sell data in the U.S., including many that, like Facebook, are heavily used by families with children.
One such company is Evite, a free online invitation service that is a particular concern to Mary Ross, a mother of three and former CIA counterintelligence officer. She is heading up a privacy initiative, Californians for Consumer Privacy, that is lobbying for tough new privacy laws using the slogan "Your life is not their business."
“My kids are little, and every other week, I get another Evite to a birthday party. … When you get one of those invitations, they’re selling the presence of children in the household, what their ages are, whose birthday party they’re going to, your religious affinity.
“I’d thought, oh, I’m just paying with my eyeballs — seeing these advertisements that are popping up. I had no idea they were selling information about my children — that was horrifying to me," Ross said.
As evidence, she points to a 2017 "data directory" produced by Oracle that shows that information gleaned from 22 million registered Evite users can be purchased to determine, among other things, the presence and age of children in the household, upcoming birthdays, sports that family members play and whether or not someone is an "alcohol enthusiast."
Companies analyze invitations and RSVPs to make "inferences" based on the information given in the invitation.
"The value of Evite data is that our users have taken a direct action to indicate where they will be and what they will be doing at a date in the future," the data directory says.
Other companies with data touted in the Oracle directory include the car-buying website Edmunds.com, which collects data that can help marketers find "a highly valuable consumer who owns a home, loves to shop and has a high household income," and the credit-reporting service Experian, which says in the report, "We maintain a wealth of information about consumers and how they make buying decisions. We compile data from hundreds of public and propriety sources."
The California initiative would require companies that collect, buy or share personal data to make this information obvious to the consumer, and to allow them to opt out, while prohibiting companies from punishing people who do with higher prices. It would also allow Californians to sue companies and be compensated if their data is sold after opting out, even if they can’t prove they were harmed.
Facebook is among companies that have contributed to efforts to fight the California Consumer Privacy Act, which will be on the ballot in November if supporters obtain the necessary signatures on a petition. Others include Google, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.
Opponents say the measures would be disruptive to interstate commerce and would cause companies to leave the state. But the movement, spearheaded by real estate developer Alastair Mactaggart, has said, “We think the average voters look at this and think, ‘why wouldn’t I vote for this?'”
The movement is benefiting from the Cambridge Analytica controversy, as well as comments from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has said that “this certain situation is so dire, and has become so large, that probably some well-crafted regulation is necessary.”
If the initiative gets on the ballot and is approved, California will have the most stringent privacy laws in the nation, given that it also has a tougher law governing children’s digital privacy. In most states, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, applies to children 13 and younger; in California, it protects children up to age 17.
Weathering the storm
Although people have been joining the "Delete Facebook" movement since the story broke about Cambridge Analytica on March 17, and a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that fewer than half of Americans trust Facebook to obey privacy laws, there is little evidence that the company has sustained a mortal wound from the most recent controversy. Many Facebook users say that their usage of the site has not changed in the past few weeks.
Annie Payne, a Utah resident who runs a citizens advocacy group that has 1,500 subscribers on Facebook, said she spends more than an hour a day using Facebook for her business and personal interactions.
While she doesn’t mind Facebook using her data to target advertising to her, she is upset by Cambridge Analytica’s use of the Facebook data — especially published reports that said the company sought to exploit the “mental vulnerability” of some Facebook users. And she doesn’t believe that Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives didn’t know how the information could be used.
But that said, “I just can’t do anything about it short of closing down my page,” which Payne said she doesn’t plan to do.
Caryn Rivadeneira, a mother of three who lives outside of Chicago, said she’s been following the Cambridge Analytica stories, but has no plans to delete Facebook, even though she has modified her behavior there as her children (ages 11, 13 and 16) have aged.
“In the past couple of years, I have been increasingly concerned about what I share, what I’m posting, certainly about what relates to my kids,” said Rivadeneira, who writes children’s books on Christian themes. “When it first started, Facebook seemed like a cozy, private thing. It’s not really that private,” she said.
“To me, Facebook is still a wonderful way to connect with people, and I belong to a couple of writers’ groups that are private, but in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Who is reading this?’”
That’s a good way to approach anything that is “free,” and parents should be teaching their children to think about the ways in which companies seek to trade in their data, said Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that offers guidance for families on media and technology.
“There’s no such thing as a free app. Every interaction you have is being tracked. And you don’t know how companies are using it,” said Knorr, who also hasn't withdrawn from Facebook.
Parents should realize — and teach their kids — that just because a company asks for information, that doesn’t mean you have to give it. Facebook, for example, only requires a name and email address to sign up. The company will also ask many other questions, such as your phone number and the type of music you listen to, but you don’t have to give it, she notes.13 comments on this story
Knorr believes that the default control setting on social-media accounts should be private, but often it’s public. Families should sit down together and go through the controls and make careful choices about their privacy settings. It's a good way to discuss the proper use of social media and the internet, she said, and to become more aware of our own responsibilities in protecting our data.
While thinking about where your information could end up — say, in the hands of a child predator, or shadowy operatives in another nation — is scary, in most cases, the abuses are benign. For the most part, Knorr said, “the people surveilling us are the big companies, and they’ve already got the information they need.”