Facebook data breach: The ‘what next’ FAQ
1. Is there any chance my data is out there?
It is not looking very good. Especially if you were a Facebook user since before 2015, when Facebook finally shut down the extremely problematic, and leaky, Graph 1.0 API. This was the back door into Facebook that yielded all the information currently at the centre of the Cambridge Analytica storm. It might be tempting to think that only American users had their information siphoned out. But there is little to suggest that only Americans were targeted, or that this was the only instance of an app or survey being used to access millions of records. Today there is no way of saying whose private information has been gathered, what happened to this information, and, indeed, what is still happening to this information. If your “psychographic” profile hasn’t changed much since 2015, chances are that someone out there still thinks they know how you operate. (Whether they actually do or not is another issue.)
2. But that means if my profile wasn’t accessed or that I didn’t participate in any of these surveys, I should be OK, right?
Maybe. But this raises both the problem with social networks of this kind, and the genius of the researchers who worked with or for Cambridge Analytica. You see, they don’t need to really access your profile to get to know you. They just need to access a lot of people you have interacted with in the past to draw up a profile. Don’t forget that, as far as we know, Cambridge Analytica only had to directly access round 250,000 profiles to then get insight into millions of users and billions of relationships. Our profiles on Facebook and elsewhere contain tonnes of information about people we know and even people we really don’t.
3. Is there a way I can figure out the information associated with my profile?
There is one way. If you go to your profile on Facebook, you can ask the website to give you a downloadable zip file of all the information. It is a simple, if not immediate process. Once you request this information, Facebook will prepare your file and email you when it is ready. Download the file, unzip it and then browse through the contents to figure out everything that Facebook associates with your profile. When we tried for a few writers in the Mint newsroom, we got mixed results. Some users had very little information posted on Facebook. Others had vast amounts of information they had no idea resided on Facebook servers. This includes the books they’ve read, contact details for people who weren’t even their Facebook friends and so on. Elsewhere researchers have found that Facebook has been keeping a track of some users’ mobile phone calls and contacts. All this is deeply problematic.
4. So what can I do now?
That depends on what bothers you about the ongoing scandal. The leaking of private information? Or the fact that operatives for political parties and politicians can use your profile to manipulate you?
5. How about the first? How do I regain my privacy?
As far as Facebook is concerned, you have a bunch of options. First, set aside a little time to open your Facebook profile, and tweak your privacy settings, cull the apps and devices that have access to your profile and so on. Give it a full once-over. If you’d rather take a break from the platform while doing this, there is an option to deactivate your account. But last month, The New York Times said that even inadvertently logging into Facebook from any of your many devices can activate your profile again.
6. Why don’t I just delete my profile completely?
You can. But there are at least two persistent problems. First that won’t get rid of the information about you that other people have posted. Photos from a party, for instance. And secondly, this does nothing to destroy the information about you that is already out there in some form or the other. (And this is not just a problem with a Facebook profile.)
7. And what about the second problem? The manipulation?
That is, in some sense, a far more complex and important problem. One could argue that manipulating the voter’s emotions and sensibilities sits at the heart of democracy anyway. What else is campaign rhetoric but an attempt to inflame the passions and dull the critical faculties?
But the internet, especially social media platforms, are designed to manipulate our emotions, provoke emotional responses and reward these responses in ways that are anything but transparent or obvious to users. There is no option but for users to be cognizant of the pitfalls of communicating and interacting online, especially on platforms that have the ability to inject or push content in front of us without our explicit request. The internet is a fantastic source of information, but a terrible place to take emotional cues from.
8. What next for Facebook then?
The company is currently facing pressures from multiple fronts: stock price, government investigations, irate users. For many users deleting their profiles may seem like a reasonable disincentive that will make the company reappraise its approach to privacy. But the fact remains that for millions of people all over the world, Facebook is a vital part of everyday life. Some experts have gone so far as to say that for many, Facebook is the internet. And in many places, Facebook has worked towards this end. Deleting your profile may not be enough if the ultimate goal is to make the internet a less manipulative place for all users.
But irrespective of what Facebook does, the challenges posed by the internet in modern societies remain. The internet promised us a world of democratic and free access to information. It has done the same for disinformation.