Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: Scandal or inevitable outcome of the digital age?
May 9, 2018
Over the last month or so, we have been bombarded by information about the recent Facebook scandal.
Terms such as ‘data breach’ ‘data misuse’ and ‘data abuse’ have been bandied around, adding fuel to the fire of those already scathing of Facebook and social media and putting doubt in the minds of current users.
Here we explore why this is not as much of a scandal as popular media is making out and why its emergence could actually be a good thing.
Let’s be clear, data gathering and use for marketing purposes is nothing new. The use by businesses of customer data to help create, promote and sell products or services is what the whole field of marketing is based upon.
So why was this case slightly different?
In case you have been living in a bubble for a while and don’t know what was involved, let us explain.
Cambridge Analytica, a UK based political consultancy, purchased an app called thisisyourdigitallife, which was designed to gather data-use information from web users.
They arranged to use it for informed consent research by several hundred thousand Facebook users. However, they not only accessed data from the users that took the survey but also the data of those people in their social networks. As such they acquired the personal data of circa 87 million users – mainly in the US but including around 1.1 million in the UK.
It later emerged that Cambridge Analytica helped political representatives utilise this ill-gotten data to try to influence political opinion. Like market research, political profiling and the targeting of campaign messages is nothing new.
What was different in this case was that it was done on a vast scale and in an apparently underhand and surreptitious manner. Furthermore, it appears to have been highly effective.
In our view, it should not have come as any great surprise to users that their data was (and is) being used to target them with relevant information.
While the vast majority of users view Facebook as a social networking site that connects them with their friends and families, we would argue that the raison d’etre of Facebook is to gather data, use that data to target you and then make money giving third parties access to that data in order to ‘target’ you more effectively.
With over 2.2 billion active users worldwide, Facebook is the biggest data harvesting machine of its time.
While people are upset with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s behaviour because it had political ramifications that many view negatively (i.e the wrong party won), technically there was no great ‘scandal’ at all.
As individuals, we underestimate the value of even the most basic of our data. We hand it over quite freely to whomever asks, often receiving nothing in return.
What is perhaps most surprising therefore is that it took so long for this exploitation of Facebook and its data to occur.
Digital technologies have opened up a world of data insights that have the potential to be useful to a range of organisations – including your own. The key to making the relationship work lies in building trust between all parties: informing customers how their data is and can be used; providing them with confidence that your organisation can and will protect their data; assuring them that it will only be used in pre-agreed ways; and ensuring that third-parties are not able to abuse their access to that data.
As the fallout from the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica story continues (with the recent news that Cambridge Analytica has now ceased trading), it is clear that breaching that trust has real world consequences for all concerned.
So, what positives, if any, can we take from this episode?
Firstly, Facebook is beginning to acknowledge that users expect greater transparency if it’s to keep their custom. If you are a Facebook user, you will no doubt have spotted the new link that appears at the top of the News Feed asking you to review the third party apps you have installed and what information you are sharing with them.
They have also introduced some new terms of service and a new data use policy (driven, in part, by the incoming GDPR regulations).
Secondly, public consciousness of how their data can and is being used has been increased. This is a good thing in our view. Big data has tremendous potential to improve the quality of service organisations provide to a range of customers but trust and consent are key to enabling this to happen.
We need to constantly encourage people to educate themselves about their data and how it is used, so they can take greater control of the situation and realise the benefits that sharing that data has to offer.
Thirdly, it will hopefully make all social media companies aware that not only are they subject to relevant data legislation, but they also have an ethical responsibility to protect our data.
So, Cambridge Analytica has closed its doors in the wake of the episode but what of Facebook? Without doubt, it remains a powerful animal.
While it may now be coming under closer scrutiny, it is still able to gather vast amounts of user data and is only likely to get more effective at using it.
Ultimately, it is up to individuals to decide if, and how much, they want to engage with the digital world.
As any new frontier, it offers both opportunities and threats so the key is to educate ourselves and be responsible about what information we choose to share with digital platforms and how.
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