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EDITORIAL: Mark Zuckerberg, promises aren't enough after Facebook privacy controversy

York Dispatch
  • A firm is under scrutiny for inappropriately obtaining data on tens of millions of Facebook users.
  • The firm in question is Cambridge Analytica, which was affiliated with the Donald Trump campaign.
  • Facebook has banned the firm, more than two years after learning of the breach.

After four loooong days of silence, the Facebook chairman and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg responded, at last, to the latest controversy enveloping his social media network on Wednesday, March 21.

He admitted mistakes and outlined some steps to protect user data in light of a privacy scandal involving a Trump-connected data-mining firm.

Zuckerberg said Facebook has a "responsibility" to protect its users' data and if it fails, "we don't deserve to serve you."

He even offered a belated apology.

That's all well and good, but words, promises and apologies are not enough. Zuckerberg's actions in the weeks, months and years to come will be much more telling.

Mark Zuckergerg

After all, Zuckerberg has made billions with Facebook.

The enterprise has made much of its money by using data mined from its users to help advertisers target prospective customers.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. It’s the American way. If you use Facebook, you automatically agree give up some degree of privacy, depending on what you wish to share on the site.

Now, however, it’s clear that a privacy line has been crossed on Facebook, and it's left Zuckerberg in the eye of a social media hurricane of his own creation.

Cambridge Analytica: Last week, it was reported that a firm affiliated with Donald Trump's presidential campaign was under scrutiny for inappropriately obtaining data on tens of millions of Facebook users and creating profiling algorithms that “took fake news to the next level,” a former employee said.

Chris Wylie said the firm, Cambridge Analytica, secured personal data in order to learn about individuals and then used it to create an information cocoon to change their perceptions.

Facebook data whistleblower: ‘fake news to the next level’

“This is based on an idea called ‘informational dominance,’ which is the idea that if you can capture every channel of information around a person and then inject content around them, you can change their perception of what’s actually happening,” Wylie said.

It’s a truly frightening accusation.

The developments are the latest to show how people exploit Facebook (hello Russia investigation) in ways that could sway elections and undermine democracy.

After the news broke, Facebook said it would ban Cambridge Analytica, saying the company improperly obtained information from 270,000 people who downloaded a purported research app described as a personality test. Facebook first learned of the breach more than two years ago, but hasn’t disclosed it until now.

That’s clearly two years too late.

Denials beg skepticism: Cambridge Analytica, for its part, has denied wrongdoing and said it deleted all data it received from a contractor after learning the data had been obtained in violation of Facebook policies. The firm said none of that data was used in its 2016 election work. Trump’s campaign denied using the firm’s data, saying it relied on the Republican National Committee for its data.

Let’s just say we are skeptical about those denials.

We are also skeptical, despite Zuckerberg's promises, that Facebook will make any serious changes to prevent future problems unless pushed — forcefully — by governments both here and abroad. Lawmakers in the United States and Britain are already demanding more answers. They want to know if the lack of disclosure by Facebook possibly violated existing laws.

Facebook likely reluctant to act: Facebook will almost certainly fight back hard against any government regulations aimed at substantially increasing privacy protections for users. After all, Facebook makes its money by harvesting user data and utilizing that information to increase advertising revenue. It’s an integral part of its incredibly-profitable business model.

Unfortunately, that information, as shown in the Cambridge Analytica controversy, can be used for shameful purposes.

Facebook shares sink more than 6 percent on privacy issues

Market forces may come into play: In addition to government pressure, Zuckerberg may also be pushed into real change by market forces. Immediately following the Cambridge Analytica story broke, Facebook shares dropped some 8 percent, lopping about $46 billion off the company's market value. It continues to take a hit.

Money talks, and maybe taking a significant hit in his wallet will force Zuckerberg to listen.

The next step is up to you, Mr. Zuckerberg. You have to prove to us that you're going to be more vigilant in protecting the privacy of your Facebook clients. You must make sure that another Cambridge Analytica scandal doesn’t happen again.

We’ll be watching closely.

Facebook users beware: In the meantime, every Facebook user, including thousands right here in York County, should immediately and closely examine the privacy settings on his or her account to ensure that the information posted is protected.

In addition, Facebook users should take greater care about the information they post, because it's now obvious that information could be used to influence you in ways you can hardly imagine.

Finally, if you use Facebook, you should be aware that there are folks out there intentionally spreading disinformation, or "fake news."

As a result, we all need to become more discerning readers of Facebook content.