The hashtag #DeleteFacebook is trending on social media and news outlets throughout the country. Facebook’s most recent controversy stems from the breaking story that a company called Cambridge Analytica gained access to the private information of more than 87 million users on the social media platform. In addition, the data of nearly all 2 billion of its users has been collected by outsiders at some point in time without the users’ explicit permission.
Cambridge Analytica is a London-based political data firm that was also hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign. It gave the campaign information on the personalities of American voters and offered to influence voters’ opinions with conservative digital ads, fake accounts, and posts.
In 2014, information was collected from Facebook profiles through a personality quiz app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” This app was downloaded and installed by approximately 270,000 users in return for one to two dollars per download. Subsequently, information from users’ Facebook profiles, as well as from their friends’ profiles, was scraped away and retained. Since most Facebook users have at least a couple hundred friends, the number of people affected turned out not to be just 270,000, but over 87 million.
The specific information siphoned off included “details on users’ identities, friend networks and ‘likes’,” according to The New York Times. This allowed Cambridge Analytica to map out people’s tendencies, personalities and common interests based on their likes and home pages.
With the guidance of Cambridge Analytica’s data, President Trump’s digital operation during the election proved highly effective. According to Martin Moore at the Center for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, Trump’s campaign “was using 40-50,000 variants of ads every day that were continuously measuring responses and then adapting and evolving based on that response.”
Computer Science Teacher Forest Reid believes that although Cambridge Analytica has been engaging in such activity since 2014, “It only just came to our consciousness because of Robert Mueller’s investigation into the last presidential election.”
For many students at Deerfield, the story of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is unfamiliar. However, the idea that a company was able to manipulate people’s political beliefs based on computer algorithms was certainly shocking news for Samara Cummings ’20. “This almost reminds me of Big Brother, and complete government control,” she said.
Deerfield students and faculty were most likely attacked by the harvesting of data as well. A majority of our student body relies on the Deerfield Academy Student Forum to post and receive relevant information about school events.
Just a couple weeks ago, a Facebook group called “DA Girls” was formed for girls to coalesce into one united group, and nearly 200 girls have joined since. Because Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that most Facebook users should assume that their public information has been exploited by a third party, it is safe to say that at least one member of our community, if not more, has had their data taken from them.
Director of Information and Technology Services Kimberly Butz works on networking, infrastructure, and the protection of Deerfield’s digital network from hacks and attacks. She said, “I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear the news. I really don’t think that any of the major social media platforms have done enough to protect people’s data.” She emphasized, “Individually, we should be actively standing up for our own privacy rights. Most people don’t read the fine print under terms and conditions before clicking ‘I Accept,’ which makes it possible for incidents like this one to occur.”
However, there is only so much individuals can do. Even limiting social media use has not shown to protect one’s data from exploitation.
Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, an ethics and compliance management firm, reflected that social media executives also need to acknowledge the potential strengths and weaknesses of their platforms, stating, “We need to start by pausing to reflect on how our world, reshaped by these technologies, operates differently – and on the kind of values and leadership we will need to realize their promise” he said.
Most Deerfield students trust social media with much of their private information, including phone numbers, addresses, school information, friends, family, and more. The question ahead is if and how technology should bear the responsibility of keeping that information safe from hacking.