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Tech Giants Grapple With User Privacy and Misinformation
Posted On May 1, 2018
Two days of congressional testimony on the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal betrayed two realities when it comes to the security of user information on social media platforms: Mark Zuckerberg and other tech giants have much to learn about user data privacy, and members of Congress—who are responsible for protecting the rights of citizens—clearly have little in-depth knowledge about the inner workings of these platforms.

With the prevalence of frauds, scams, malware, data breaches, phishing, impersonation, account takeovers, and more, the field of cybersecurity has become a major industry. However, beyond these clearly illegal activities are the trade in personal information and efforts to influence people through the manipulation of that information. Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms have developed gigantic global audiences, which makes this issue one of unprecedented importance and power.

Security company ZeroFOX’s co-founder, Evan Blair, admits that “the whole idea of social media—the trust, the scale, the connectivity—makes social media ripe for targeting by scammers.” Theodore Claypoole, writing in Business Law Today, notes, “Every bit of information we disclose is another databite to be mined and measured, sorted and sold. Online transactions provide even more opportunities, because a purchase through a social media site hits the trifecta for the site owner. With a purchase, the site registers our activity, our expenditure, our degree of interest in a good or service and an entire category of goods or services (opening our wallet demonstrates significant interest), our bank, our credit card information, our shipping address, our online ID, and our passwords.” We’ve heard this many times before, but the lack of action on the part of legislatures, courts, and social media companies has become critical.

Claypoole describes the current environment as follows: “[S]ocial media is not simply a collection of online places that allow private information to escape, but social media sites are organized to draw as much participation and information out of us as possible. Like casinos built without sunlight or clocks so as to encourage your further play, the social media sites and data mining industry study online behavior and build manipulation machines designed to entice you to remain engaged and to divulge information.”

Cambridge Analytica’s Invasion of Privacy

Thanks to the lack of clear industry rules and weak regulatory structures, it is no wonder that some companies have aggregated information on huge percentages of audiences. Cambridge Analytica, for one, harvested Facebook information on 87 million people and provided tools for manipulating the data.

Facebook appeared surprised by these attacks on the privacy of its users. How did it happen? An all-too-common offer to download an app and take a personality survey. In doing so, users unintentionally allowed the app’s developer to take private information from their profiles—and even their friends’ profiles—and share it with Cambridge Analytica. Although sharing the information with a third party is against Facebook’s terms of service, the fact that it has permitted app developers to harvest data (which is not against its terms of service) makes it clear that social media companies’ core business interest is not in offering free social and communication options for users, but in making money by serving the needs of businesses looking for detailed information on these users. Expecting major changes from these companies, given the huge profits that they make, is perhaps naive.

Congress has been lax in its oversight of internet-based commerce in general, but particularly in looking at transparency and privacy issues. The European Union is moving forward with efforts to enforce more transparency and to put limits on data harvesting.

Given the questions asked by members of congressional committees during the 2-day hearing on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, we clearly have an uphill battle ahead of us. Zuckerberg promised changes; however, it is too early to tell what these might be and how aggressively the company intends to pursue them. Even many state legislatures have begun to look into the rights and privacy of their constituents in light of these continuing attacks.

Building Trust and Combating Misinformation

Misinformation is another major issue facing the internet industry. After the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, Facebook and Google were criticized for hosting inaccurate information and taking hours to identify it and take it down. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other platforms each announced plans to tighten their disclosure policies on advertisers; however, little has come of this other than persuading Congress to hold off on any new federal regulation. Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced the Honest Ads Act in 2017, hoping that Congress would give some attention to and take some action in this area. However, the legislation hasn’t gone anywhere.

But Google has been busy. In January 2018, it announced Google Bulletin, “a free, lightweight app for telling a story by capturing photos, videoclips and text right from your phone, published straight to the web (without having to create a blog or build a website). If you are comfortable taking photos or sending messages, you can create a Bulletin story!” Currently being tested in two metro areas, it would be useful for citizen journalists and fakers alike. Anyone can use it to upload videos, photos, and text and make them immediately available on Google search, as well as send them out via links by email or on social media platforms. Google has always focused on the innovation of new tools and applications to increase and deepen its penetration into its core markets. However, we have no “truth meter” that can solve the misinformation problem.

In March 2018, Google announced a $300 million multi-focused plan to fight fake news: “The commitments we’re making through the Google News Initiative demonstrate that news and quality journalism is a top priority for Google. We know that success can only be achieved by working together, and we look forward to collaborating with the news industry to build a stronger future for journalism.” The majority of the funding is focused on supporting nonprofit organizations to increase information literacy as well as combating intentional misinformation. Google has teamed up with the Poynter Institute, First Draft, and the Local Media Association and has joined the Trust Project and the Coalition for Better Ads.

Google and Others Leading the Way

Google is working on a Gmail update that will include a new Confidential Mode, which, according to The Verge, lets users “stop recipients from forwarding certain emails, or restricts the ability to copy, download, or print them.” Also, Google announced that the head of its web search and artificial intelligence (AI) division was stepping down and that the division would be broken into two units with new leadership for each. Given the importance of both search and AI to the user experience, it will be interesting to follow their development. (Check out Google’s latest AI offerings, Talk to Books and Semantris.) In addition, like Amazon and Apple, Google has its own voice assistant. Google may be synonymous with web search; however, in this fluid industry, change is the constant.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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