The personal data of 87 million people taken from Facebook highlights a need for privacy law reform, an Ohio State expert said.
Cambridge Analytica, a digital consulting firm based in London, was found to have taken data from users without their permission, according to a New York Times expose. The firm would sell the data to organizations and companies looking for ways to influence voting behavior, a procedure is began using as early as 2014.
The data breach is an example of how laws protecting privacy have not caught up with technology and place too much responsibility on individuals to protect themselves, said Dennis Hirsch, director of the Program on Data and Governance at the Moritz College of Law.
“What we need to do in our law is to start to set some societal standards as to when it is appropriate to collect data and when it’s not,” Hirsch said. “What types of data use is appropriate and what is not.”
Cambridge Analytica used data — users’ names, birth dates, locations, “likes” and all of their Facebook friends’ information — to build psychological profiles of potential voters. The voters were then targeted with personalized political ads.
The firm worked for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the “Vote Leave” campaign in the Brexit referendum.
The practice of collecting and analyzing data is not problematic to Hirsch, but a company’s ability to use the information to influence voting behavior is, he said.
“If they were being manipulated to buy Doublemint gum or something, I think people wouldn’t be so troubled,” he said, “but it’s the fact that it’s being used in our elections.”
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of the social media company, is testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees and will do so again Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the company’s data practices.
Hirsch said data analytics have been beneficial to economics, human health and many other critical areas, adding that data collection is important to implement laws that minimize harm.
Despite those benefits, data is collected at so many points that it’s impossible for users to make informed decisions regarding privacy, Hirsch said, citing a Carnegie Mellon University study that showed an average internet user would need to spend 250 hours per year to read all the terms and conditions agreements they likely encounter.
“That’s like a month of work,” he said. “The idea that we would receive notice of all that collection and be able to consent to it is a fiction.”
In the Facebook breach, many users did not have the opportunity to consent to the original data collection. The data was harvested by an app developed by Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology researcher at Cambridge University, that roughly 270,000 Facebook users downloaded, according to the Times.
Users had the option to opt out of sharing friend information with the app, Hirsch said, but very few did because they didn’t understand the capabilities of big data analytics.
“They probably never imagined that the data could be used in the way that it was,” he said.
In 2015, Facebook changed its policy to no longer allow apps to request permission to collect data from users’ friends. The social media company requested Cambridge Analytica return the data, but the firm continued to conduct business based on user’s information gathered.
Facebook has made specific changes in response to the controversy, including auditing data collected by outside apps and making privacy settings more user-friendly.
Through Hirsch’s involvement studying data analytics, he has found that many companies see data collecting as an issue that must be dealt with.
“If they don’t [deal with data collecting], they can really suffer a significant cut to their reputation and to their relationship with their users and customers,” he said.
Students on campus also are concerned about the scandal.
Xenia Demenchuk, a second-year in mechanical engineering at Ohio State, said the data breach has increased her concern about using social media.
“I think a lot of people feel that way,” she said.
Demenchuk said she’s always been hesitant about using social media because her father, a software engineer, taught her about the risks.
“I was paranoid before the [Cambridge Analytica] story came out,” she said. “My whole life I’ve been taught to be private and to use adblocks.”
While addressing privacy concerns online can be time consuming, Hirsch said it’s worth it for individuals to review settings on the sites they use most often.
“Go into the privacy settings of the entities with whom we share the most data like Facebook, like Google, Apple, Amazon, and really put the time in to look at the privacy settings,” he said.