I was out shopping when I first learned about the massive Facebook hack last week. I immediately felt the urge to tell the people who were with me. As if it was the news of the next Star Wars coming out. You know those events that you have to share because they give you that sense of community? It wouldn’t have felt real, had I not got the chance to discuss the matter with others. I was so struck by the news because, as an avid-user, I always pictured Facebook to be a safe environment. Now, not so much.
When I think about hackers, I picture a Black Mirror-style gang of shady guys, typing obscure sequences of green numbers on black screens compromising national security. And that sounds scary, but also kind of cool. A bunch of data sold to companies? Not exactly the same vibe. Did anyone even understand what really happened with Cambridge Analytica anyway?
A Year of Facebook Hacks
It all started with Zuckerberg announcing a new algorithm to reduce the viral content in favour of meaningful content posted by users. Here was an attempt to take Facebook back to its original purpose: “staying connected and bringing us closer together”. Something we, and you, actually value. But, how genuine is it really?
No doubt this was a strategy to reassure everyone and restore the company’s image. In fact, Facebook faced a storm of accusations for allegedly facilitating the circulation of fake news during the 2016 US election campaign. Well tried, but have you actually seen any changes in content in your newsfeed? 🕵 I haven’t.
Fast forward to March 2018 with Christopher Wylie, a data scientist from Eunoia Technologies, exposing Cambridge Analytica for harvesting data from apps which prompt you to log in through Facebook. This data was then used for microtargeting in political campaigns. This wouldn’t have been such an issue, except that these apps aren’t actually allowed to sell data to third-parties. In 2015, CA actually came out to say they were being sold users’ personal information. In response, Facebook demanded that the data be destroyed, without carrying out proper verification. The apps, together with CA, resumed their trafficking of information undisturbed, until March 2018, when Wylie exposed the plot.
In April, a pale and apprehensive Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress to spill his side of the story. However, he only managed to disorient the already confused members of the audience before offering an apology, as you can read in this summary by The Guardian.
Meanwhile, Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook in 2014, launched the hashtag #deletefacebook. A year ago, Acton left the company over a divergence with Zuckerberg about “implementing monetization initiatives” on WhatsApp. In an interview with Forbes, Acton paints Zuckerberg as obsessed with competition and revenue through advertising. All in all, that safe space I mentioned earlier seems increasingly littered with people quitting alongside scandal.
Last week in fact, also saw Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger quitting Facebook. Sources at the New York Times revealed that while Systrom and Krieger would have gladly stayed, it became clear that “their input was no longer valued” and, frustrated by the “increasingly aggressive meddling by Mark Zuckerberg” on how Instagram was run, they packed up and left.
Is Facebook finally falling apart?
Well, here we are again, talking about Facebook hacks, the latest being “a disaster for internet security”. But is it really? Nicholas Thompson, an editor at Wired, explains that there are two things the hackers could get. First, your security settings. They could access your account, and possibly into other websites, you subscribed to. Second, and most terrifying, they might have access to Messenger. There you may have things like “your bank account or personal information that you wouldn’t want out there”. For Thompson, the most important thing would be learning what was done. This will help us understand how worried we should be: “Was this just a bunch of hackers got in because it was sport and fun, or was there something else?”
It’s all pretty bad indeed, but can we really blame Facebook for this last fiasco? Investigations on Facebook’s role in allowing the data breach are still underway, but, after all, any platform could be hacked: banks, national health systems, airways. Security measures advance, but so do hackers, when they aren’t operating from inside security system firms in the first place.
Conspiracy theories aside, Facebook is now dealing with an external attack. It is different from allowing data brokerage companies to harvest information illegally directly under your nose and do nothing about it. It’s different from launching algorithms promising to fix fakes news and hate speech and which punctually achieve nothing. It’s different from pushing away collaborators who have contributed to the success of the company with their own platforms, despite Facebook’s now inexorable decline. On top of the last year’s events, in fact, Facebook has lost 9.5% market value so far in 2018. Besides, a PewResearch survey found that people are literally abandoning the social network in mass.
Facebook’s mask is falling
Examining this last year at Facebook, we will see that the company only has itself to blame for its debacle. And maybe it’s chief executive. Zuckerberg never fails to remind us that Facebook is there to “bring people together”, that it’s an “optimistic and idealistic” company, that they never mean any harm and strive to put their users first, conveying a general feeling of security and comfort inside his platform. But by now, this continuous insisting on how good and ethical Facebook is has become ridiculous.
Clearly, Facebook does not contemplate transparency in their policies. Taking responsibility before Congress, hoping for forgiveness, is the last resource when everything else fails. This is what should really worry us as users. Hacks can be prevented to a certain extent. However, as scary as it sounds, the information we put on the Internet is always potentially at risk. Worse is, when the company claiming to provide a “secure place to make meaningful connections” willingly put its users’ information at risk for profits.
After days of reflecting on the hacking and data breaching – and several headaches -, I concluded that the hack itself is not that important. Instead, we should pay more attention to how our data is used, demand transparency, and be cautious with what information we put out there. It will be interesting to see Facebook’s next moves because the mask is finally falling. In the meantime, do change your password regularly and secure your privacy settings.
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