4 min read

You’ve always been the product

Long before Facebook, your personal information was bought and sold, just less effectively.
You’ve always been the product
Photo by Matthew Henry / Unsplash
Originally written for Hacker Noon on Medium.

Long before Facebook, your personal information was bought and sold, just less effectively

What did you think was happening?

Here is the truth about our personal data. It’s everywhere, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Data collection and data sharing have long been a part of our lives. We agreed to Facebook’s terms of service; we joined the loyalty programs, we spent our days posting and sharing our likes and dislikes online.

We gave up freedom long ago, and we did so willingly.

Loyalty programs were the first big step. Points for things? The occasional discount? We signed up in droves.

We also ignored the small type saying that the information, the data they collect from our usage of our ( their ) cards don’t belong to us.

Who amongst us doesn’t have a credit card? Hard to get by without one these days.

Visa, MasterCard, and American Express all collect and sell your demographic and purchase data.

We love our social platforms and mobile apps.

Every free web service you use has made you the product and exists to give your data to other companies. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and every inch of Google are advertising businesses wrapped in platform services.

Even when you’re protective of your privacy, minimizing your exposure on social media, or using alternatives to Google, you still live in a world of constant data collection.

Ever hear of Acxiom, Datalogix, eBureau, CoreLogic, PeekYou, or Rapleaf.

They’re all data brokers, and I guarantee they know almost as much, if not more, about you than Google or Facebook. For example, data brokers collect information about your subscriptions from magazine publishers and newspapers; they know whether you prefer dogs or cats by skimming purchase history from pet supply chains. From public records, they can tell what kind of car you drive or if you’ve declared bankruptcy.

Funny, just as I was searching for information, I found this exact headline: https://qz.com/213900/the-nine-companies-that-know-more-about-you-than-google-or-facebook/

If you want to freak out over data collection and its usage against us, search the name Palantir and read what comes up about Predictive policing and their other government initiatives.

What Facebook is guilty of, and this hasn’t been allowed since 2015, is building a better mousetrap when it comes to data accessibility. They made it easy, too easy to access massive data sets, and Cambridge Analytica took advantage.

Cambridge Analytica used Facebook. They exploited the system.

While Facebook has a lot of work to do regarding transparency, protecting users and having a soul, they are not responsible for what happened next.

Cambridge Analytica took what everyone else is doing to sell us more crap, then…well…they sold us more crap. Then, they used the power of data and machine learning to craft and optimize messaging ( targeted but at scale ) to sway the opinions of poor, uneducated white men ( others too, but this was the prime demographic they had the most effect on ).

Only a mouth breather would see the ads Cambridge Analytica were propagating, then look at a future with Donald Trump and think, yep that’s the way to go.

It’s going to come out that all the major digital media platforms were used to spread Cambridge Analytica’s messaging, so will we be dragging them in front of congress as well?

Of course, we shouldn’t, and I’m not sure we should do much about any of this from a government or regulatory perspective.

Cambridge Analytica should be punished for stealing user data: they’re guilty of that. But we can’t punish them for using machine learning to test the efficiency of messaging simply because their result was Donald Trump?

We also can’t put the psychographic profiling genie back in the bottle either, Cambridge Analytica aren’t the first group to use this kind of targeting, and they most definitely won’t be the last.

Would we blame Nike for using these same tactics to sell us shoes? Because they are.

As I’ve been reading up on this “scandal,” there seem to be two schools of thought; either we are easily manipulated and are fucked, or we actually aren’t that malleable ( especially when it comes to our political leanings ), and this is overblown.

Quite frankly, I don’t know which of those ideas I believe more. What I do know is that we’re in an age of broad reach, more effective messaging and political polarization. None of which is going away, nor is it easily solved for.

What I do know is that rhetoric and pitchforks don’t help us. So how about less knee jerk and more deep thought?

In the short term, we need more transparency and better educate ourselves as to what we’re seeing and where it comes from.

For consumers:

  1. Understand that what you see online, from anyone other than your immediate friends and family, is trying to sell you something. There is nothing wrong with that if you understand the transactional nature of the relationship and proceed accordingly.
  2. You wouldn’t listen to some random stranger on the street telling you to do almost anything, so why would you do it online? Do the research, track down sources, get a bunch of opinions and then, most important of all…think for yourself and make decisions that are best for you, your family and your needs.

For Facebook ( and all digital platforms ):

  1. Be upfront. Tell us what you are doing. Tell us in big, bright, accessible language.
  2. Protect your users first. Your business models are predicated on being able to help sell us stuff, that’s fine, but put in the work to verify that both you and your “trusted” partners aren’t taking advantage of people. Here’s a hint, if companies think they can get away with something, they’ll probably try it, so be diligent.
  3. Commerce is one thing, but democracy is something altogether more important. If that means far stricter regulations on spending for political groups or political messaging, then so be it. These groups are crafty, so when they are caught trying to circumvent the system, make the punishment harsh.