Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, famously proclaimed in his 2013 testimony before Congress that Facebook “doesn’t sell your data.” He was right, for a time. But every day, Facebook peddles information about its users and the users of other social media platforms. All manner of digital schemes seek to use your social media data to target ads. And Facebook’s recent admission that a for-profit company, Cambridge Analytica, misused that data shows just how vulnerable we all are to that risk.
We no longer think of the Internet as we did when it was mostly free. People spend so much time on social media that it doesn’t seem like a stretch to believe they could be tracked. The moral case for privacy and data protection was a sound one back then.
Now, not so much.
Things have changed
The platform space has become crowded and competitive. Websites and apps push out new features every day. Social media companies know more about us than the general public. And they are able to compete on user loyalty — provided users can still trust them. If social media products can crack that code, they may become the magnets by which they draw other platforms. That means the value of the user is increasingly dependent on how well they can anticipate and manipulate users.
As a result, users have become tremendously vulnerable to hacks. The recently acknowledged Cambridge Analytica breaches were only the most obvious of many recent examples. Consider more generally what happened to Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage service. It was hacked in 2016, and the breached personal data of over 600 million users was published online. That data included private photographs, family relationship histories, medical information, and all sorts of other information.
What could it take to breach that database?
Here’s what it looks like: Unless an individual is extremely cautious about what she posts and with whom she communicates, experts say, social media could suddenly record a lot of people’s pictures. Every time her Instagram feed is searched, her browsing history is logged, and every time a post on Facebook is shared, personal data is stolen. And so forth.
Yet Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter continue to supply us with more information about ourselves than ever. They already know so much about our spending habits, our online interactions, and what we think about the world that, combined with just about everything else they have on file, they can decide whether to market us as we actually are, or to bombard us with ads that conform to a pre-defined ideal.
But why is it that the algorithms now being used are so invasive and unfair? The reasons are technical. What you do online can be hacked and analyzed. Everything you post (much of it controlled by a social network itself) is based on a graph of your interests and that of your friends. And algorithms such as Facebook’s constantly develop new metrics about how you interact with other users.
The trigger for social media algorithms is the way we interact. We mostly use them — make or unfollow friends, express outrage, repost photos, read other posts, donate money, send texts, or check with friends — in a set of “micro-interactions.” That kind of activity represents only a tiny fraction of what we do online, but that is all that’s required for algorithms to “learn” about us.
That’s why you could be attacked online by an algorithm designed to target users who feel outrage over an issue, or to target them in a variety of ways: to suggest in-game challenges for spending money, to recommend prospective advertisers, to create a segue to a TV ad.
We are exploitable
Hackers, and non-hackers, can exploit this naturally constant state of online interaction to manipulate us to do — or not do — something.
It’s possible that users will learn to adapt to the intense prying. Perhaps they will find a way to respond to hackers without revealing their identities. But if they don’t, then we face a potential future of steady degradation and abuse.
Millions of people are now vulnerable to the vast data accumulations of their friends and associates. If and when data sellers like Cambridge Analytica gain even more access to our data, it will open up new ways for outsiders to manipulate, and for more easily to exploit, us. And that will mean that very few people are really in control of their own online identity. That’s already the case when it comes to media consumption. The stakes are now much higher.