Last week the New York Times reported that British data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica had “harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission.” As law professor Andrew Keane Woods explains,
The data that Cambridge Analytica obtained seems to have come from Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University who convinced hundreds of thousands of Facebook users to take a Facebook-linked personality quiz—thereby granting Kogan access, through Facebook’s developer platform, to a treasure trove of user data. Kogan then shared this information with Cambridge Analytica. . . .
Only about 270,000 people took the quiz, so how did Kogan get information from 50 million user profiles? Facebook offers a popular feature called Facebook Login, which lets people simply log in to a website or app using their Facebook account instead of creating new credentials. In 2015, developers who created apps that used Facebook Login were allowed—with Facebook’s permission—to collect some information on the users network of friends. According to the Times, Kogan was able to use the data gleaned from the friends profiles to match users to other records and build psychographic profiles.
Earlier this week we also learned that for several years Facebook has been collecting call records and text-messaging data from Android devices. The company denies it was collecting the data without permission, that it was an “opt-in” feature, that it “helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook.” Still, the concerns have led the Federal Trade Commission to launch a nonpublic investigation into the Facebook’s privacy practices.
When people think about social media ethics (if they ever think about it at all), we tend to focus solely on the content that is directly posted or shared. We may worry, for instance, whether we are passing along gossip or “fake news.” What we rarely worry about is whether we are breaching the trust of our friends, family, and neighbors by exposing their personal information without their permission.
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