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There’s a saying which predates the internet and social media, but it certainly applies to those: If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

From the time about 10 or so years ago, when Facebook moved beyond college campuses and became available to anyone and everyone, its login screen has promised that the site is “free and always be.”

Why is that, do you think? Why would Facebook all but guarantee it will never charge you to use it?

Because you’re the product being sold. Specifically, your data:

How old you are.

Where you live.

What school you go to or went to.

What TV shows or sports teams you like.

Seems harmless enough so far. You never gave them a credit card number or a Social Security number, right?

But you did give them data. And Facebook put it up for sale.

Facebook last week suspended the Trump campaign’s data consultant, Cambridge Analytica, for scraping the data of potentially millions of users without their consent, the Washington Post reported March 19. But thousands of other developers, including the makers of games such as FarmVille and the dating app Tinder, as well as political consultants from President Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential re-election campaign, also siphoned huge amounts of data about users and their friends, developing deep understandings of people’s relationships and preferences.

Cambridge Analytica — unlike other firms that access Facebook’s user data — broke Facebook’s rules by obtaining the data under the pretense of academic use.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in 2007 invited outside developers to build their businesses off Facebook’s data, giving them ready access to the friend lists, “likes” and affinities that connect millions of Facebook users. Practically any engineer who could persuade a Facebook user to download an app or to sign into a website using Facebook’s popular “log-in through Facebook” feature would have been able to access not only the profile, behavior and location of that Facebook user but also that of all the user’s Facebook friends, developers said. As long as the developers didn’t misrepresent themselves, Facebook allowed the data to be stored on developers’ databases in perpetuity.

Cambridge Analytica obtained the data through a psychological testing app, called Thisisyourdigitallife, that offered personality predictions and billed itself on Facebook as “a research app used by psychologists.” Facebook said 270,000 people downloaded the app. That allowed the collection of data on 50 million “friends,” the New York Times and the Observer of London have reported.

Facebook did not conduct an audit of Cambridge Analytica in 2015 when the violations were first discovered, according to Facebook. Instead, it asked Cambridge, the psychologists and an affiliate company to promise it would delete the ill-gotten information.

“The model was to build and grow and figure out monetization,” said Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager who oversaw developers’ privacy practices until 2012. “Protecting users did not fit into that.”

Let’s review: “... build and grow and figure out monetization.” “As long as the developers didn’t misrepresent themselves …” “asked … to promise it would delete the ill-gotten information.” And the cherry on this sundae: “Protecting users did not fit into that.”

Facebook was looking to make money while letting prospective users sign up for free; seems to have shown a shocking naivete with regard to the idea that everybody waving cash at them would be a good actor; and had little or no interest in protecting you.

Facebook’s drawing the criticism at the moment, and justifiably so. Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been called to testify before Congress; he says he will, and he definitely should.

While Facebook is the most popular social-media website, it’s hardly the only one. Do you use Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram, just to name three popular examples?

How much information have you given voluntarily on those sites? Or, in terms used at the other end: How much data have you given?

Remember, you’re the product. Be careful about how much you’re “selling.”


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