American University News
As Congress and the public wrestle with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, many people are now realizing the risks data collection poses to civic institutions, public discourse and individual privacy. The U.K.-based political consulting firm didn’t just collect personal data from the 270,000 people who used researcher Aleksandr Kogan’s online personality quiz – nor was the damage limited to 87 million of their friends. Facebook recently revealed that nearly all of its 2.2 billion users have had data scraped by “malicious” people or companies. The firm itself has joined calls for better privacy regulations.For years, watchdogs have been warning about sharing information with data-collecting companies, firms engaged in the relatively new line of business called some academics have called “surveillance capitalism.” Most casual internet users are only now realizing how easy – and common – it is for unaccountable and unknown organizations to assemble detailed digital profiles of them. They do this by combining the discrete bits of information consumers have given up to e-tailers, health sites, quiz apps and countless other digital services.
As scholars of public accountability and digital media systems, we know that the business of social media is based on extracting user data and offering it for sale. There’s no simple way for them to protect data as many users might expect. Like the social pollution of fake news, bullying and spam that Facebook’s platform spreads, the company’s privacy crisis also stems from a power imbalance: Facebook knows nearly everything about its users, who know little to nothing about it.
It’s not enough for people to delete their Facebook accounts. Nor is it likely that anyone will successfully replace it with a nonprofit alternative centering on privacy, transparency and accountability. Furthermore, this problem is not specific just to Facebook. Other companies, including Google and Amazon, also gather and exploit extensive personal data, and are …