What now for Facebook users?

Illustration by Mattz90/DepositPhotos.

BitDepth#1138 for March 29, 2018

Faust was a scholar and a charlatan, a well-to-do man who was not satisfied with what he had, so to access unlimited knowledge and the pleasures of the world, he made a deal with the Devil. From that literature comes the term a Faustian bargain.

By the end of last year, Facebook boasted more than 2.2 billion users, men, women and children who traded access to their lives – as shared on the social network – for access to a communications service that’s evolved from being user-friendly to downright addictive.

Now the scope of the platform’s privacy issues, long a source of worry for cybersecurity and information security professionals, is becoming clearer to the general public.

Beyond the personal information that’s collected on signup, data analysis of how these platforms are used is the next generation of business intelligence.

The field of psychometrics has blossomed with the surfeit of information offered by social media data gathering. Psychometry was once done using data from questionnaires and observed information, but the data trails of connected digital users are much richer sources of correlatable information.

On one level, we’ve always known that there was a price for free services. Seasoned Internet users describe it succinctly: If you aren’t paying for the service, you are the product.

Nowhere has that been truer than on Facebook, a service that depends on both the content generated by its users and on their digital footprints for its profitable advertising business. It is, in short, a surveillance and monitoring platform by design.

We’ve also always known that we are being tracked on social media as well as on the wider Internet. Browse a product on Amazon and in a matter of minutes advertising promoting similar products will appear in Facebook sidebar ads and in Google advertisement placings on websites.

Now we know that Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica and its partner companies to access more than 50 million user profiles and their related interactions on its service. The Attorney General’s statement on the company’s work in T&T is here.

CA then used this information and access to do what advertisers do all the time on social media, identifying and targeting users with messages on behalf of its business clients, which turned out to be the Trump Presidential campaign and the Brexit vote.

It would be foolish to think that the efforts of Cambridge Analytica alone led to those surprising outcomes, but it would be equally silly not to acknowledge the tremendous power that the microtargeting of individuals with appropriate propaganda messages has brought to the landscape of political influence.

Based on what you say, who you say it to, what you click on and what you view, Facebook knows far more about you that you might ever have imagined.

For some, that’s an acceptable trade.

Finally acknowledging the scope of the problem, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg issued a late apologia for the incident.

In part, this is what he said…

“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it.”

Nowhere in the statement does he promise to change Facebook’s fundamental premise, nor can he. The company’s product is its business model.

Facebook may be a social media platform to its users, but it is a data mine for its owners and its profitability is dependent on knowing what the people who log into it do with their time.

So what should a Facebook user do?

If you work in a security sensitive business, you may want to consider quitting Facebook altogether. Data management hasn’t gotten better despite the company’s ongoing promises.

If you are happy using social media services, your first step should be to understand the privacy controls available to you and to activate those which will limit access to material you do not want widely circulated.

In the wake of this issue, expect digital tools to come to market which will help you to control access to your information and feeds on social media. Mozilla has already adapted a data sandboxing extension specifically to enhance the privacy of Facebook users.

Don’t sign up for apps or games that are linked to the Facebook platform. According to Facebook, the Cambridge Analytica data harvest was done through an app that accessed the social media company’s network. Many games ask for more information than is necessary and gaming can be used to gather psychometric data.

Consider limiting what you share and say on social media services to statements, links and media you would be comfortable with sharing in person. This makes social media less fun, but reduces your exposure on the platform.

If you create and depend on Facebook for distribution to an audience, you’re already aware that Facebook’s recent changes to its feeds are limiting your reach.

If you are a publisher or broadcaster of any size dependent on Facebook’s reach to connect with your audience, it’s time to cultivate more direct connections and to collaborate with peers to create nexus points that more effectively reach your audience. Despite Facebook’s protestations to the contrary, it is no friend of online media.

Facebook may be free and convenient, but the company has demonstrated time and again that it will always do what’s good for its fortunes.

For some, the Facebook compact has been broken, probably irretrievably.

For most of us, myself included, its utility remains persuasive, but not at the cost of caution and due diligence.