My dad, before he died, was a market analyst in the semiconductor industry. His job, as he put it, was to “take information from companies, analyze it, and sell it back to them in a different format”. He was really good at his job because he had a solid understanding that data had value and that, like polishing a diamond, knowing how to polish that data could make it more valuable.
Here’s a quick factoid for you: Facebook’s worth – at least of October 2017 – was around $500 billion. That’s half a trillion dollars. Not bad for a company that gives its services away, right?
Well, that’s the rub, now isn’t it? Recent events, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, should show us that Facebook isn’t exactly giving its services away to its user base. Not that they ever claimed to doing that. I find it amusing that now, in the midst of that scandal, that people are losing their shit over Facebook not protecting their personal data. The real problem is Facebook has never protected personal data. They’re in the business of collecting and selling data on a massive scale. In return for a platform for sharing cat pictures and political screeds, Facebook collects as much information about you as possible and sells it to whoever wants it. Ever posted something about your dishwasher dying only to see ads for dishwashers the next time you log in? Post a picture of your dream car and suddenly you’re getting ads for Mercedes Benz? Or Yugo. You know, whatever floats your goat.
Like most social media sites, Facebook is nothing more than a fancy data collector and redistributor. Normally, companies have to fight tooth and nail to get information about what floats your goat. That kind of data is priceless, especially if you’ve got a platform you can use to deliver targeted advertising at the right time. Everyone on Facebook (yes, me included) gives that information away freely in exchange for more time with cat pictures and political screeds.
Is it an equitable exchange? Depends on what you’re doing. I don’t tend to post much personal information on there, so free access to cat pictures, friends, and the occasional political screed – er, heated political discussion – is worth it to me.
So, how does all this happen? Is Facebook actively giving your information to anyone that asks for it? Yes and no. They’ve something like over 2 billion users, so it’s not like Tide is going to ask for all the people who are likely to eat colored pods and Facebook is going to run a query and hand it over for few bucks. Facebook, like Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and all the rest, are services, not websites. Wait! How can that be? You use a web browser to access it, right? So it must be a website.
Back up, Sparky. Yes, most people access Facebook with a web browser, but that doesn’t mean it’s a website. It acts like a website, but you can also access Facebook with an app on your phone, a program on your desktop, or any other number of ways. Most of those programs render out the whole site for you because that’s what people want to see. Never mind the fact that Facebook is nothing more than a tarted-up group from back in the Usenet days, it’s the pictures and cool stuff that we really want to interact with. As users, we don’t care about the data. Unless you’re stalking someone, you probably don’t care that they live in Schenectady, love Nissans, and work for an advertising firm. You just want to see what people are posting. If you are stalking someone, stop it. That’s not cool.
Advertisers, on the other hand, don’t care about the cat pictures, but the political screeds and personal information are a goldmine to them. In addition to the random things we all post each and every day, the very metadata about you as a person is invaluable. Let’s say I run VHS to DVD shop in Clovis, NM and want to figure out how many people in the surrounding area could use my services. I could use your metadata about where you live and a scrape of your posts to target advertising to the right people (both of them) that might use my business. From there, I can decide to buy targeted ads on Facebook that promote my service to the right people.
So far, there’s nothing too terrible to see there. You share information, Facebook sells it, advertisers use it, you get your copy of Night of the Comet copied to a DVD. Everyone winds up happy.
The downside happens when unscrupulous groups use less-than-savory custom-built apps that exploit holes in Facebook’s API security to push misinformation or flat-out lies to people for the purposes of nudging us in a direction. That was the whole goal of various Russian data centers during the last election (and probably continuing to this day). And make no mistake, a nudge in certain direction is far more effective than a shove when it comes to getting people to do what you want them to. Now imagine doing that on a massive scale, say in the billions of users. Imagine what you could do with that kind of power.
That’s the why. The how is surprisingly simple. Remember, Facebook is really nothing more than a service. That means it can be accessed from a variety of different clients. That’s where the malicious apps come into play. Beyond creating a data scraper that exploits Facebook’s API, you could also make a Facebook app that looks like a regular game, but asks for certain kinds of information. If the game looks good enough, people will happily tell the game their names, birthdates, places of residence, political leanings, religious leanings, and everything else a data aggregator could possibly want. Just like with legitimate advertisers, someone who wants to nudge you in a direction can take that information and build on it, pushing you stories that reinforce a belief they want you to have. The next thing you know, something that was “meh” last week is the most important thing in the world to you.
And all it takes is enough people analyzing data you freely handed out and enough people pushing the message to make it a thing.
So, rather than getting pissed at Facebook for selling your data – they’ve never been opaque about that – think about what you’re sharing before you share it. Information is power. It’s a bullet, and if you aim it correctly you can blow the kneecaps off the world.
Definitely have fun with Facebook, that’s what it’s there for. But be wary of what you share because all the information is out there and available for a price. The same goes for any social media site (or, you know, blog site). We’re long past the industrial revolution and the computer revolution. The new model of currency is data and it’s very big business. If you don’t want your data polished and sold back to you, don’t give it out.