Facebook has been in a PR crisis for a long, long time now: ever since the US election, Facebook has been fighting one fire after another.
The latest occurred just recently, when Mark Zuckerberg (Fun fact: I typed his name in MS Word and there’s no red line below: the word Zuckerberg is no longer a proper noun?!) took it upon himself to testify in Congress.
That was a first for him; usually, Facebook sent representative for this type of hearings – these representatives would at least know more about the topic they were talking about.
The reason for the hearing that brought the top guy over? Cambridge Analytica.
To cut long story short, before 2015, Facebook used to allow their APIs to draw more data. I know you’re confused; let me explain in layman’s term.
When you first use some apps, you might see two kinds of login: one whereby you just tap on “Login with Facebook” and another whereby you have to create a new account with username lah, password lah, email lah…etc.
You see, the second kind of login has been proven to frustrate users: many would rather not use the app than to spend five minutes (which is, in the world of app, is forever) registering.
Of course, not all app uses that: for example, in the Goody Feed app, we don’t require anything as we won’t need you to register in order to read our articles. However, a number of apps do require that (think Uber, Instagram, Twitter…etc).
When people “login with Facebook”, it draws data about you from Facebook, and therefore creates an account for you in the app within milliseconds. That connection (the drawing of data) is called an Application Programming Interface, commonly known as API.
This is the basics of an API: some apps require more info to operate more efficiently, though most app nowadays merely use the login API. And in certain cases, Facebook would ask if you would like to provide that permission.
All good, right? Well, not before 2015.
Before 2015, Facebook allows not just your data, but your friends’ data to be drawn too. By 2015, they have disallowed that, but it’s too late.
Cambridge Analytica operated between 2013 and 2015, and through its app thisisyourdigitallife, they got 87 million users’ data: all from a user base of 300,000.
The sin? The app thisisyourdigitallife claims that it draws the data for academic purposes (you know, for research). It turns out they were used for political reasons instead.
This created a big hoo-ha, but this isn’t the focus of this article. It’s about the data.
You see, even without Facebook, our data is always being given, with or without our permission. It’s just that this has now turned digital.
Twenty years ago, when we shop in a supermarket, we might have signed up for a loyalty card. Within the card application form, there might be a few million terms and conditions, and one of them is to “take information for marketing purposes”.
With that, the supermarket can track every single purchase we’ve made when we use the loyalty card (which we definitely would use, won’t we?). Based on millions of purchases, while cross-checking with other customers’ habits, the supermarket would be able to draw a scary but real conclusion: they’ll know who you are, what you like and even what your wife likes.
That information is useful as they can then send you marketing materials based on what you like: for example, they might know that you’re going to have a kid soon (yeah, studies have proven that they can track that based on your purchases) and send you vouchers about baby products.
While it seem scary, it’s actually happening – people used to be freaked out in the past when they see products being marketed to them that they knew they needed.
Fast forward to 2018: when you go online, do you realize that all the ads you see are usually quite relevant? You’re going to BKK next week, and all of a sudden promotions about BKK appear. Once you come back to Singapore, you realize these ads disappear, as if the advertising world knows where you are.
Well, they do.
So, Facebook mining data about you: should you be concerned? Well, you should, but fact of the matter is that it has been going on for years. The only difference is that it has gone digital, and the system has become more intelligent.
In fact, it’s easier to say no nowadays: you can now track what is tracked from you. In the past, you can’t.
Of course companies can only create a profile of you, and that profile can’t include your personal details. Tapping on that would be a serious breach of security; but a profile to influence you (while not knowing who you are) to buy something…that’s just another day in the world of capitalism.
Do come back tomorrow for more commentaries!
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