Facebook is being hammered for allowing the data firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) to acquire 50 million user profiles in the US, which it may or may not have used [the firm says it did not use them] to help then-presidential candidate Donald Trumps campaign, but the outrage misses the target: There is nothing Cambridge Analytica could have done that Facebook itself does not offer political clients.
Here, in a nutshell, is the CA scandal: In 2014, Aleksandr Kogan, an academic of Russian origin at Cambridge University in the UK, built a Facebook app that paid hundreds of thousands of users to take a psychological test. Apart from their test results, the users also shared the data of their Facebook friends with the app.
Kogan sold the resulting database to CA, which Facebook considers a violation of its policies: The app was not allowed to use the data for commercial purposes.
Carol Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, writing for the UK publication the Observer, quoted former CA employee Christopher Wylie as saying the firm broke Facebook on behalf of Stephen Bannon, the ideologue and manager behind the Trump campaign.
It did not escape keen observers that if the Trump campaign used Facebook user data harvested through an app, it did no more than former US president Barack Obamas 2012 data-heavy re-election campaign.
It is not documented exactly how Obamas team gathered oodles of data on potential supporters, but a deep dive into the tech side of that campaign by Sasha Issenberg mentioned how targeted sharing protocols mined an Obama backers Facebook network in search of friends the campaign wanted to register, mobilize, or persuade.
To do this, the protocols would need to use the same feature of the Facebook platform for developers, discontinued in 2015, that allowed apps access to a users friends profiles with the users consent, as Facebook invariably points out.
Lets face it: Users are routinely tricked to obtain such consent. Tech companies make giving it, or agreeing to complex terms of service, look like a low-engagement decision.
Is it okay if we look at your friends info? they ask.
Sure, why not? I want to take this nifty psychological test, we answer.
Afterward, only Facebook itself is interested in the legal minutiae of what permissions it gave to which developers. As far as everyone else is concerned, it does...