Big Data Shouldn’t Be In the Hands of the Powerful Few

By Joe Grist
Blog Content Contributor

If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s crystal clear now.  We cannot allow ourselves to entrust our personal data to large corporations and entities without a system of checks-and-balances. Time and time again, we have been shown that when it comes to handling our personal information, our privacy is ignored, disregarded, or even abused.

My recent piece that discussed taking steps to protect your private data, the abuses of power that Lyft and Uber committed in 2017, and the lack of punitive legislation in place for large corporations like the aforementioned ride-share companies is just the tip of the iceberg. Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Google, and Apple have many of the same issues as Uber and Lyft and have been known to even use their resources to crack down on leakers through inventive tactics.

Facebook Signin Joe Grist.png
We’re at a crucial point of deciding how our personal information is treated. Image courtesy of Joe Grist.

Facebook has security teams leaving USB “mouse traps” that would immediately send out an alert should they be inserted into a device. One leaker that talked to The Guardian under the pseudonym John Evans said that he was brought to an interrogation under the guise of a promotion so that he could be questioned about a leak. He said that Facebook had records of screenshots he had taken, links he had clicked or hovered over, and that they even implied that they had accessed chats that he had with the journalist before he was with the company. Facebook even had a European content moderator sign an agreement that gave the company the right to monitor and record his social media activities, including his personal Facebook account, as well as emails, phone calls, and internet use. He also agreed to random personal searches of his belongings including bags, briefcases, and car while on company premises. Working for the company leaves employees so filled with paranoia at times that one Facebook employee even asked a reporter from Wired to turn off their cell phone so that it would be harder to tell if the reporter had been around anyone working for Facebook.

Apple requires employees to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) before they can even see the code name of a secret project and even hires third-party investigators, some of whom who have had experience working for the NSA, FBI, U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Military.

Google has been sued for encouraging employees to spy on and report each other and has been shown to encourage keeping leaks under wraps by dealing with things internally. James Damore, a software engineer that was fired for writing a memo that questioned diversity programs, said that “weird” things kept happening to his workplace devices. Mentioning that he had to sign back into his Google account and that his Google Drive—where the controversial memo was stored — quit working. After his termination, Damore quit using his personal Gmail account and switched over to yahoo out of fear that he Google could be spying on him.

A spokeswoman for Google denied that Google was spying on Damore’s devices and said that the company never reads personal email accounts.

“I wouldn’t expect them to admit it,” Damore said. “… My lawyer doesn’t think they are above doing that.”

Maybe you see or hear of these incidents and think: “Well, that comes with the job, and Google/Facebook/Apple are just doing their best to protect their intellectual property, even though their methods can err on the extreme side.” The problem is, these actions aren’t limited to company employees.

As of late, The Guardian broke a huge story on a firm known as Cambridge Analytica, its questionable relationship with Facebook, and the effect it had on the 2016 election. While it has been all over the news, here’s a quick recap of the story so far.

Cambridge Analytica, a data firm hired by Donald Trump’s campaign to target voters and direct its political advertising strategy, illegally harvested the personal information of 50 million people on Facebook without authorization so that they could be targeted with personalized political advertisements. This was done through a third party app that prompted users to take a personality test.

Cambridge Analytica paid around 270,000 people to download the app and through their personality tests the firm compiled psychographic profiles made up of the personality traits and characteristics of these users.

Poprapak Apicholdilok at Pexels
To continue to allow corporations to go unchecked and handle issues that affect the public internally is irresponsible and potentially dangerous. Image courtesy of Porapak Apichodilok.

What took place after the story broke was a social media firestorm. Facebook was intensely criticized and representatives such as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar demanded that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg should face the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“This is a major breach that must be investigated. It’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves,” tweeted the Senator. “ I’ve called for more transparency & accountability for online political ads. They say ‘trust us.’ Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before Senate Judiciary.”

Facebook executives soon took to Twitter to respond to the story and stated that the incident was not a data breach.

“This was unequivocally not a data breach,” Tweeted executive Andrew Bosworth. “People chose to share their data with third party apps and if those third party apps did not follow the data agreements with us/users it is a violation. no systems were infiltrated, no passwords or information were stolen or hacked.”

This is where the major issue of this whole ordeal comes to light. Sure, the term breach might not be the correct descriptor for the incident that occurred, but that’s far from what matters. To try and focus on choice-of-words shows that executives are either missing the point or more likely than not, are trying to distract everyone from the true issue. The amount of information that companies like Facebook hold is far too great. What’s worse is the fact that this whole Cambridge Analytica incident shows that they don’t have a handle on things. Either that, or they’re selling out to the highest bidder.

Zuckerberg released a statement addressing a “breach of trust” and Facebook separately outlined steps they are taking to address and prevent future catastrophes, but this is yet again another example of dealing with issues internally, much like what I pointed out in my last post about private data.

Instead of relying on an unbiased third party to run a system of punitive checks and balances, corporations such as Facebook, Lyft, Uber, Google, and Apple want to deal with these issues themselves. But how can we actually trust them to do what’s right for the average citizen if doing what’s right is in direct conflict with the success of the company?

That’s why we should take notice of the fact that Zuckerberg didn’t even apologize. Sure, he lost $9 billion of net worth, but the man is still worth over $62 billion as of right now. The only thing that matters to him as of now is the assurance of his company’s longevity and continuance. We can no longer allow large companies, corporations, or even incredibly rich individuals to have the amount of control that they currently possess without some sort of fail-safe or punitive measures in place.

To allow these entities to self-regulate and decide how to deal out punitive measures without any true sense of consequence from the outside world is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous. The only answer is to push for meaningful legislation and make sure that our voices are heard. We would never allow a government to have this type of control and information, why should we give it to a corporation?

Featured image courtesy of Adrianna Calvo.

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