If you’re not paying for something, you are the product.
That gnomic truism about online life has resurfaced in recent days as revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data have piled up. It describes the business model that dominates the internet: free websites making huge profits by gathering detailed information about users, and then targeting ads accordingly. It’s a reminder of the core problem in this dense, ugly scandal.
Narrowly, what appears to have happened in the Cambridge Analytica Affair is this: A company called SCL Group asked a Cambridge University researcher to help create “psychometric profiles” – snapshots of people that reveal more about their personalities than even they know.
The researcher built an online personality quiz that required participants to give over access to their Facebook profiles and those of their Facebook friends with low privacy settings. At the time, Facebook allowed apps to access data from such users, though it has since changed its rules.
About 270,000 people took the quiz; this effectively gave the researcher access to the Facebook profiles of up to 50-million people, according to The New York Times, which broke the story along with The Observer of London.
Apparently in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, he shared the data gleaned from these profiles with Cambridge Analytica, a spinoff of SCL Group.
What Cambridge Analytica did with this data is disputed. The company claims it destroyed the stuff when it learned it had been collected improperly and didn’t use any of it during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when it was hired to work for the Donald Trump campaign. But a former employee told The Times they had recently seen chunks of the data on a company server.
The fear is that the company could have used the Facebook profiles to build detailed psychological portraits of millions of Americans before deleting the data, allowing it to build and target ads with uncommon precision, playing on and reinforcing voters’ known biases.
Facebook has responded by suspending SCL Group from its platform and hiring an outside firm to audit Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO, Alexander Nix (in part for hidden-camera video footage taken by a British news channel that shows Mr. Nix boasting of the firm’s penchant for dirty tricks). And lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic are calling for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify about how the “leak” happened.
All of that is proper. It seems clear that millions of Facebook users had their personal data deployed in ways they didn’t consent to. That’s disturbing.
But it’s important to remember just how similar Cambridge Analytica’s alleged behaviour is to standard practice in the world of politics and online advertising – and how disturbing that can be, too.
Political campaigns have been using Facebook to target slivers of voters for years. They can pay Facebook to send an ad for the National Rifle Association to men over 55 who have liked posts about guns, for example – or an ad for Donald Trump to people who have liked posts about anti-immigration groups.
Candidates have used Facebook targeting to great effect, slicing the electorate into minute interest groups and tailoring their rhetoric to these tranches. Even if Cambridge Analytica used its ill-gotten Facebook data in the 2016 campaign, it wouldn’t have been achieving much that it couldn’t have paid Facebook to do.
Of course, politicians aren’t the only ones using this capability, nor is Facebook the only platform exploiting it. If you use any Google products – the search engine, Gmail, YouTube, the Chrome browser – one of the world’s biggest companies is tracking your online behaviour in minute detail for the sake of advertisers.
If you read the terms of service of these companies, they acknowledge as much. But most people ignore the fine print. We inhabitants of the internet have accepted an unprecedented level of corporate surveillance because the services are good and free, and the cost is usually just a few annoying pop-up ads for something we Googled the other day.
We have accommodated ourselves to being the product.
If any good comes of this sordid Cambridge Analytica episode, it may be a dawning awareness that, when we are the product, the merchants will not always be people we like.