'Hard To Exaggerate' How 'Data-Hungry' Facebook Is, One Professor Says

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The icon for the social networking app Facebook on a smartphone screen, photographed through a magnifying glass. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)
The icon for the social networking app Facebook on a smartphone screen, photographed through a magnifying glass. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg will explain his company's handling of user data before Congress this week. The Facebook CEO also took questions from reporters last Wednesday, acknowledging the company's missteps and announcing new privacy provisions.

Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep), a professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who researches the impact of social media, tells Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd she would "be shocked if there aren't a lot more cases" of data scandals like the one involving Cambridge Analytica.

Interview Highlights

On whether she's a Facebook user herself

"Yes, absolutely. I find it very useful, I have far-flung family, they're on Facebook. I've always written about the fact that we're there because we've invested so much of our relationships and interactions there that we kinda find ourselves going back."

"There were thousands and thousands of apps scooping up people's data. I'd be shocked if there aren't a lot more cases of this."

Zeynep Tufekci, on the Cambridge Analytica scandal

On criticism of the company in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal

"It has a record of being very data-hungry, in that it scoops up an enormous amount of user data — not just what you do on the site, it even purchases data about you and merges it with its own data. And I have to say, unfortunately I wasn't surprised as much by the current scandal, because what happened was until 2015, Facebook allowed these kinds of apps to harvest not just your data on Facebook, but your friends' data. So even if you'd never downloaded this app or any other app, some random Facebook friend of yours did, they got your data, too. So the current scandal is focused on the fact that one of those apps was fronted by an academic who apparently passed the data to Cambridge Analytica, which then became Donald Trump's firm. But there were thousands and thousands of apps scooping up people's data. I'd be shocked if there aren't a lot more cases of this."

On Facebook maintaining "shadow profiles" of nonusers

"Even if you've never been on Facebook, what happens is, for example, on Android phones, if you downloaded the Facebook app or the Messenger app, it turns out Facebook's been uploading to its own servers and keeping a copy of your text messages, which means even if you've never been on it and you were texting with somebody who's on Facebook or who uses the app or who uploaded their contact list — which is a very common way people connect with Facebook — it means that it kinda knows who your friends are. It can place you in a network. And Facebook keeps these 'shadow profiles' of its nonusers so that it can identify and profile and sometimes even target them. It's kinda hard to exaggerate what a data-hungry company this is."

On the harm in companies like Facebook having all this user data

"The harm in that is what you're doing is you have this asymmetric information where there's a couple of companies that know this enormous amount of information about you, and you have no clue that you were being manipulated and sort of attacked where you are weakest. And this isn't just politics. This is, for example, advertisers have figured out that women are more likely to purchase makeup when they feel fat, ugly, depressed or lonely. Well, is this really the best way to market to people? And your Facebook profile would give that away."

On types of regulation that might make an impact

"I would think that making data retention completely opt-in, so that you have to be asked about whether or not you want your data to be retained, and regulating that data has to be erased. There are all these things that if they were done, not only would they work — right now, Silicon Valley is, technologically, fairly uninnovative. It's stuck in a rut, because it's got all this data. It's kinda like ... think of it this way: You've got this oil economy, and oil is really cheap. You're not gonna develop green technologies. There's a lot of new, innovative things that I hear about, but who's gonna invest in them while you can you know scoop up people's data this way?

"We need to control the emissions so that green technologies are invested in, including for Facebook. They'll be fine. They will do things that are slightly more complicated perhaps, they will still probably be fabulously wealthy. It's just they won't be able to print money this easily just grabbing everyone's data."

On the most dystopian future imaginable if no changes are made to the way we live our lives online

"The dystopian version of this is that, the data on us becomes a tool of social control that operates through soft power. We are constantly nudged and manipulated and controlled. And you already see some versions of this in China.

"But here's the thing: The reason I talk about all of this, the reason I've been talking about all of this for so long, is that, this is very young. When we started, say, at this stage of say cars, we didn't have seat belts, they didn't have emission controls, they have airbags. And the car industry had to be dragged into implementing better safety, kicking and screaming. Well you know what? It turned out to be a good thing for the companies, too.

"The thing I wanna emphasize is rather than focus on the dystopia, what people need to understand is there's nothing inevitable about the way the data retention and surveillance and digital technology works at the moment. If we change this, it'll be good for innovation, it'll be good for technology, it'll be good for business models and it'll be good for us. So let's do that, rather than focus on the spectacle side of things. It's so very early."

This article was originally published on April 05, 2018.

This segment aired on April 5, 2018.



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