Why Now? Facebook’s “Perfect Storm” Reinvigorates Old Privacy Fears

There’s little new about the way Facebook and Cambridge Analytica handled user data—so what sparked the sudden outrage?

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
March 26, 2018, 8 p.m.

When the firestorm now engulfing Facebook first kicked up earlier this month, it took many data-privacy experts by surprise.

But their surprise wasn’t at Facebook’s move to quietly share the personal data of around 50 million users with Cambridge Analytica, a British political consultancy that worked with the Trump campaign last cycle. Instead, researchers were shocked to see the American public seething over data-sharing practices that tech companies—and political campaigns—have routinely exploited for the better part of a decade.

“It really isn’t so different than issues that a lot of us have been shouting from the rooftops about for years,” said David O’Brien, a senior researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “This is an industry-wide problem, and there are a lot of players who are doing the same thing that Facebook is.”

Americans have historically responded to breaches of electronic privacy with shrugged shoulders. Yet Facebook’s sudden predicament—the company’s stock continues to crater, users are deleting their accounts, lawmakers are calling for hearings, the Federal Trade Commission is investigating, and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is elbow-deep in an extended apology tour—feels different.

No one factor can explain why consumers are suddenly wise to the tech industry’s deployment of their data. But a hyper-partisan and paranoia-fueled political environment, previous Facebook missteps, and Silicon Valley’s fast-fading reputation all help explain why the scandal spiraled so quickly.

“I think Cambridge Analytica is the perfect storm of so many different things coming together at exactly the right moment to make people care,” said Daniel Kreiss, who researches data’s impact on politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

When compared to the broader tech-industry ecosystem, the story of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica isn’t entirely business-as-usual. Though details remain scarce, in 2014 a Russian-American researcher collected the data of around 50 million users through an online personality survey whose terms and conditions gave the creator unauthorized access to the Facebook “friends” of all who downloaded the app.

That data was then shared—reportedly without Facebook’s consent—with Cambridge Analytica, which in turn may have used it to create “psychographic” profiles of each user in order to target them with online political ads crafted to trigger the person’s unique anxieties.

But the public doesn’t seem particularly upset over the apparent breach of contract between Facebook and a third-party researcher. Instead, its concerns seem focused on the notion that such data collection and profiling is widespread, or even possible.

Tom Pendergast, the chief security and privacy strategist at consulting firm MediaPro, thinks the public should have known better. “We always knew this was true,” he said. “Every single way that you interact with these social portfolios is being used to build up a profile about you, and then retarget you.

“It’s the old adage of, ‘If you’re getting a service for free, you’re the product,’” Pendergast added.

That’s true not only for companies hawking goods and services online, but also for political campaigns. President Obama’s groundbreaking use of big data was hailed as a game-changer in the 2012 election. But his campaign also used Facebook data gleaned from apps without user consent.

“It sounded to me like [Cambridge Analytica] did a lot of stuff that Obama did in 2012,” said Kreiss, adding that both campaigns appeared to rely on Facebook-derived data to predict voter behavior.

American views on Facebook, data privacy, and politics in general have changed enormously over the last six years. And while Obama’s use of social-media data was deemed groundbreaking, Trump’s use of similar data is now cast in a manipulative, sinister light.

Much of that shift can be chalked up to the difference between the abstract and concrete understanding of data threats in 2018. No one feels particularly attacked by an advertisement for a favorite type of shoes, even if it’s clear the company is aware of that preference only through the targeted use of data. But throw in political beliefs and “psychographic” targeting designed to break you down where you’re weakest, and the issue begins to feel personal.

“There hasn’t been a real vivid example of how information is extracted on a massive scale and then weaponized against you,” said Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University. “To rob people of agency in a really important, core area of identity, which is political expression, ideology—the idea that we’ve lost control of so much, to lose this as well is just difficult to swallow.”

If political manipulation is always a sensitive subject, it’s especially sensitive at this point in American history. Facebook’s misfortune was to become ensnared in a scandal along with a historically unpopular president, who is also working to fend off accusations of collusion between his campaign and the Russian government.

The fact that the scandal dovetails so perfectly to the story of shady dealings and foreign election meddling—right down to the Russian researcher at the center of it all—has likely given the story more legs than it would have had otherwise. And it’s even more damaging when coupled with Facebook’s other privacy scandals and its role in spreading “fake news” and Russian propaganda during the 2016 election, behavior for which Zuckerberg has already had to eat crow.

“I think people can only hear Mark Zuckerberg apologize for a privacy mistake so many times,” Hartzog said.

There’s also the rapidly shifting backdrop of the public’s broader relationship with the tech world. “Silicon Valley is culturally understood in a radically different way than it was four years ago, and that’s from both sides of the aisle,” Kreiss said. While liberals look askance at the industry’s rapid accumulation of power, conservatives view the tech giants as biased gatekeepers with their thumbs on the scale.

Combine that new skepticism with the sea change on privacy now underway in Europe—sweeping new data regulations are set to take effect on the continent in May, and experts say some spillover from those rules is already affecting the U.S.—and there are signs that America’s once-blasé attitude toward data protection may be hardening. “I think we may be seeing a backlash of corporate control of data,” Pendergast said.

How far that backlash will reach remains to be seen. While Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s use of consumer data mirrors industry activity more broadly, the focus of Capitol Hill and the public is so far fixated on Facebook alone. Twitter, Google, and other firms with similar business models have remained silent and are likely to stay that way for as long as they can.

“My fear is that this may become a Facebook-concentrated problem,” said Hartzog, “rather than thinking about all the platforms out there and the entire set of incentives that every platform has to collect and use data.”

If history is any guide, the public is likely to settle down over the next several weeks. After that, policymakers will feel free to target a narrow problem—perhaps the influence of big data in politics, especially as it relates to foreign meddling—while neglecting to address the relationship between data, consumers, and corporations more broadly.

“The history of every violation of user expectation of privacy has been a period of outcry followed by a normalization of that perceived violation in some way,” Kreiss said. “That’s the Facebook story: Users get up in arms about some sort of change they believe has violated their privacy in some way, it’s kind of business-as-usual, things get normalized, and folks carry on just as before.”

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