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March 21, 2018

This Just In: Facebook Collects Data About Users

The Cambridge Analytica flap is a reminder that if you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.

The latest data privacy scandal brewing at Facebook should remind everyone who uses that or any social media site of one simple truth: If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.

What you like, who your friends are, what you buy, your political views, religious affiliation and much more is all commerce to the social media giants. Facebook has made a fortune selling the data it collects from its users to third parties. Now, the dust-up between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is calling into question what happens with that data and whether the tech giant is acting inappropriately with its users’ information.

In 2014, a company called Global Science Research (GSR) distributed a personality quiz on Facebook that it claimed was for academic research purposes. The quiz was downloaded by 270,000 users and, with their permission, collected data on them and their Facebook friends — expanding the total to some 50 million people. GSR sold the data it collected to consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which then used the information for one of its clients, Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

One item of note that will probably not be widely reported is that the Trump team only used the Cambridge Analytica data during the primaries. During the general election, the campaign found that data provided by the Republican National Committee was much more reliable.

Former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie went public with the details about how the data-mining took place. Initially, he wanted to work with Facebook to go over what happened, but Facebook had other plans. “We were going to work on this in a cooperative manner. There’s obviously a lot of issues that need to be discussed. But, you know, I didn’t set out to crusade against Facebook. Suddenly they issue this press release and ban me.”

Facebook also suspended Cambridge Analytica last week. Lawmakers and privacy experts, however, are looking for answers from Facebook about its privacy policies. Facebook “goes into this endless hairsplitting that people should have known,” said Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit advocacy group. “No one could have known that their friends were disclosing their personal data on their behalf. It’s entirely illogical, and it breaks the consent law.”

Facebook claims that its policies are clear and that the company takes its users’ privacy very seriously. Or at least it takes privacy seriously depending on who is using the data.

In 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign used Facebook to gather data on voters. Over one million people downloaded an Obama 2012 Facebook app that gave the campaign access to users and their friends, totaling upwards of 190 million people — nearly four times the Cambridge Analytica haul. Facebook, which was billing itself at the time as a resource for political candidates looking to reach voters, had no problem with this use of its users’ data. Obama was “the man,” after all. And the Obama campaign’s use of the social media giant was considered a game-changer and lauded for its ingenuity. But the Trump campaign’s use is being called conspiratorial and exploitative.

The double standard is too obvious to ignore. Facebook is no friend to Republican or conservative causes. Its supposed campaign against fake news has amounted to little more than a campaign to scrub users’ feeds of information that Facebook’s thought police deem inappropriate. Its competitors do the same thing. Twitter, YouTube and Google all routinely game their algorithms so that you see only the content they want you to see. And they sometimes will ban “offenders” outright, a large majority of whom happen to share conservative viewpoints. Not only conservatives but other “undesirables,” too — YouTube just updated its terms to ban huge swaths of videos on gun-making.

How to get real news that can be trusted is not an easy question to answer (other than subscribing to The Patriot Post, of course). But what can be done in the short term is for people who use these social media sites to do their best to protect themselves and their privacy and stay away from third-party apps that will collect and sell your information. Again, however, if you’re using a free product like Facebook, you are the product.

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