If you run an open API program, the current controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to create psychographic profiles of millions of Facebook users should concern you, and not just because of how your profile data may have been used.
I recall being very surprised at how much data I could access through Facebook’s application programming interface (API) back when they first released it. I could easily navigate through a specific user’s news feed and friends list and all but replicate that user’s web of social interactivity with only a handful of calls. Facebook opened this data to allow developers to create games and applications that enhanced the core purpose of Facebook at the time — connecting people and allowing them to share their lives with their friends online. While the terms of service made it clear that data was not intended to be captured and stored, there was also nothing stopping a developer from breaking those rules — and nothing Facebook could do to easily tell if the rules had been violated.
Subsequent updates to the Facebook API limited the access to much of that data, but the genie was already out of the bottle. It appears the data Cambridge Analytica used may have been gathered some time prior to 2015, before those limits were put in place.
It isn’t just Facebook
Facebook is taking a big hit in all this controversy, but there’s a part of me that feels it’s somewhat undeserved. The same data that may have been used to target specific audiences with messages of questionable veracity also allowed companies like Zynga to flourish and helped Facebook evolve from a simple social bulletin board to a genuine social platform. I don’t believe any of this was malicious on Facebook’s part. I think it’s the unintended consequences of a drive toward radical openness marred by a culture of “move fast and break things.”
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