Cambridge Analytica Scandal Underscores Risks of Internet Use

Editorial Board

The right-wing owned data firm Cambridge Analytica violated Facebook’s terms in order to obtain data from as many as 87 million Facebook users to sway the results of the 2016 Presidential election, according to the New York Times.

This scandal, underscored by Congress’s hearing of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, should serve as a wakeup call to online media consumers and platforms alike. The value of consumer data on the web has finally been brought to the forefront of attention.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the internet has been made an essential part of daily life. For many users, however, it is difficult to grasp the risks associated with internet use, especially when it comes to their data.

In June 2014, a researcher working in a Cambridge University laboratory named Aleksandr Kogan developed a personality-quiz app, which about 270,000 people installed through their Facebook accounts. Kogan accessed and stored not only the data of those who downloaded the quiz, but also the data of their Facebook friends. According to the New York Times, Kogan provided that database, containing information of about 84 million Facebook users to the voter profiling company Cambridge Analytica.

According to The Atlantic, Cambridge Analytica the data to create “psychographic” voter profiles, which were used to produce targeted online ads for the 2016 presidential Trump campaign, as well as the 2016 Ted Cruz campaign, and the Brexit “Leave” campaign.

Much of the nation’s focus has been on Facebook and Zuckerberg’s role in the massive misuse of data, but it is important to note that this issue is not unique to Facebook. As Ethan Zuckerman pointed out in an article for The Atlantic, we have been alerted of how uncomfortable it is to have all our internet use tracked by the websites we use so that this information can be sold and used against us in targeted, persuasive ads once Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica got caught for doing so, but this is exactly what most advertisers are doing, constantly, on nearly every site on the internet.

Though the government seems to be taking action, as Zuckerberg faced questioning from tens of angry Congressmen, eager to show their constituents concern over citizens’ privacy, it is unlikely that any legislation regarding online privacy will actually be passed. Therefore, it seems that it will be up to the consumer to protect our own privacy.

Thankfully, free web extensions like Ghostery exist, which gives users control over ads and tracking technologies. Things like this will most likely not be enough to fully protect us from targeted ads and data misuse, so for now, it is our own responsibility to be aware of not only what information we put online, but just like our parents have been reminding us for years, we really cannot trust everything we see on the internet.