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Facebook: ally or adversary in the online world?

Unless you live under a rock which has no internet connection, you must have heard of the scandal that entails Facebook. The social media company faced allegations and in many cases legally sound arguments about its data collecting practices and data protection. The scandal shook the world of social media and - ironically - many criticised Facebook’s practices on Facebook.

What exactly had happened and is Facebook really sold 87 million people’s data?

The first question can be answered clearly:

2014 - An independent developer Alexandr Kogan created an app This is Your Digital Life, which collected data of your Facebook related activities. 280000 people downloaded it. Facebook (which supported app development at this time) approved his app. The app asked for expressed consent for the data collection even for collecting data of all friends of the users.

2016 - A UK data mining company Cambridge Analytica, who worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign offered to buy this data to affluence the voters choice through advertisement specifically catering their interests and political leanings.

2017 - Cambridge Analytica got under scrutiny when ties to Russian hackers came to light, especially when incriminating videos got in the investigation.

2018 - The investigation revealed Facebook as a source of information and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook testified in front of a US committee. Many realize that Facebook has data collected from their devices, emails, contact information, other apps etc.

From the timeline alone it is quite clear that Facebook is not directly involved in the data breach. But with closer inspection there are multiple questions to be asked:

Why Facebook needed other device data (apart from what they needed for the app working correctly)?

Why Facebook let app developers collect data free of charge from Facebook, with no restriction?

How a shady company such as Cambridge Analytica could simply buy the data?

First and foremost though the outrage is understandable, essentially Facebook is not in the fault here. Facebook has your expressed consent when you register that all data you give them can be used by them. Also every larger update of the app and the platform ask your consent repeatedly to collect data. Also Kogan’s app did the same: all users expressly consented of the collection and their data. If someone is to blame of the data collection, it is the user. We share our data without a thought simply clicking our way through the boring stuff. We do this many times with other apps and many times even with our financial and sensitive details (eg. online porn industry) and not even flinch, when data breaches happen. In 2016 in Ireland 4 million sensitive financial data was stolen from a Bank of Ireland server including bank details, contact and exact financial status. The bank was fined for €3 million, and the public just nodded. In the US 143 million US customers exposed with the Equifax breach, but nobody blamed the banking systems. All in all Facebook is the same. Could be their data protection stronger? Yes, it could be. Could their developer filter be better? Yes it could. As Zuckerberg readily admitted Facebook could be safer and more protective. But it doesn’t change the fact, that it is not Facebook, who mishandled the data. It was Cambridge Analytica.

In the defence of Facebook let’s see what it achieved since 2001:

  • Made a platform to connect millions of people. Many of these connections would otherwise be impossible.

  • Gives voice to small enterprises for free. Helps to find customers and gives tools to connect to those otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

  • Created a platform to instant communication. Today, Facebook’s Messenger is number 1 on chat programs in use, and via Facebook daily communication is unbelievably easy, even with the other side of the world.

  • Helps people to connect with others in oppressed environments. Without Facebook many oppressed communities or individuals would be without a voice. Thinking here cases like Chinese opposition, religious or ethnic oppression or simply coming outs in many restricted or forbidden environments (such as LGBT people or women in the Middle East).

  • Facebook redefined communication, people communicate directly, without the filter effect of corporation or state controlled media (like television).

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