Facebook faces its biggest challenge

The last 48 hours of news have been a rapid-fire devolution of the Facebook narrative, mostly at the hand of Cambridge Analytica. It's been a confusing few days and it gets weirder the longer you read into it, so before we jump in here's what went down.

The story broke over the weekend by The Guardian revealed that Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics company behind the Trump election team, the Brexit campaign and many others around the world, used illegally harvested data from millions of private Facebook profiles to influence voter choices.

While it's unclear exactly whether Cambridge Analytica was able to influence the election itself, the data it obtained is problematic ‚ÄĒ it supposedly paid to receive rich user data on¬†a reported 50 million¬†Americans from a researcher, harvested under the guise of a quiz app.

This data has become a core issue again because people are seemingly outraged that an innocuous quiz could steal information (your likes, sexual orientation, friends and so on) to be weaponized in an attempt to sway your opinion. 

This quiz used Facebook's lax API rules at the time in order to mass gather information, then store it outside of the service for use later. Many initial stories called it a breach but to be clear, the API was used legitimately to obtain this data -- it's just that it probably should've stopped such wide access automatically.

Facebook actually knew this data was out there more than two years ago, and contacted users including the whistleblower in this story to ask that data be deleted, but took them on their word that it was. There was no data breach as some have reported, but a breach of trust: Facebook didn't keep this information safe enough.

After the story first broke things got weird fast. Facebook announced that Cambridge Analytica had been suspended for data misuse and threatened legal action against The Observer which first reported the story. 

Cambridge Analytica denied the allegations, even going as far to say "advertising is not coercive; people are smarter than that." If this were the case, the advertising industry would be dead already as it finds itself existing because advertising is coercive. 

The next day, Facebook announced that Cambridge Analytica would submit itself to a Facebook-funded audit of its servers and documents by an external audit team, which was already on site, to uncover any remaining data on its servers. 

Not only is this a bizarre move, that Facebook funded it and couldn't understand that servers are easily destroyed makes it a token gesture at best, and that Cambridge Analytica would capitulate to such demands willingly all the more confusing.

While on site, the UK commissioner suddenly ordered the Facebook audit to halt as the government expected to raid the office itself pending a warrant.

But we're not even done here yet.

At the end of the day, the UK's Channel 4 released a controversial, secretly filmed documentary that shows Cambridge Analytica's CEO and other high ranking staff attempting to sell their services to a undercover journalist. 

The video is worth watching because the executives describe how far they're willing to go 'in the shadows' for their clients and even depicts them bragging about creating scandals for candidates, on tape, to entrap them during a campaign. Naturally, the company believes the video to be misleading and its CEO says he "misjudged" the situation.

If you're confused about all of this, we all are. Facebook finds itself unwittingly involved in a scandal that's only emerging two years after the events that put it in motion, but this story has resurfaced a feeling that privacy is not understood, or clearly detailed, by these companies.

It's been a year and a half since the U.S. election sparked a debate about the use of social media to sway opinion and the spread of fake news. Facebook's total lack of enforcement, or meaningful acknowledgement of its platform's role, has drawn frustration and outrage globally, but in the end it seems like not much has changed.

As a result, it now faces US senators asking Mark Zuckerberg to testify about how Cambridge Analytica was able to obtain so much data. Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and other high ranking executives have remained entirely silent during this process when they'd usually have spoken out, but an emergency town hall for employees is taking place today.

This scandal may not end up being about Cambridge Analytica so much as the weaponization of your data, and how even the smallest signals such as bands you like or the places you eat can be used in an attempt to manipulate you through the things you see online. 

It may also become an important change in the way technology companies are treated by the public and regulators. The industry has historically faced a friendly regulation climate, in which it was possible to do almost anything behind closed doors and grow to billions of users with little oversight. 

These issues are bringing to a head the demons summoned by social media, algorithms and unfettered reach, so perhaps it'll force companies to face them, regardless of cost. Stay tuned for more, I don't think this story is close to being done yet.


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