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Backing away from Facebook

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify before Congress next week for the first time.

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If you’d like to feel uncomfortable, go to the settings menu on your Facebook page and request that the company send you the treasure trove of data they’ve accumulated about you. Most users may be shocked to see just how much information Facebook has stashed away about you, your life, and your Internet viewing habits.

As it happens, the Federal Trade Commission has also taken an interest in this topic, announcing recently that they are investigating Facebook for how it has handled all this data after reports showed that the data firm Cambridge Analytica accessed the information of approximately 87 million users. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, is set to appear before Congress this Wednesday and Thursday to answer questions about this issue.

WILL TOMER: We need an information consumer’s bill of rights

Some have attempted to blame Facebook’s users, claiming they knowingly used the platform and willfully handed over their personal data. This argument does not completely track. While consumers should be making informed decisions about the products they use, Facebook has continually changed its terms of service agreement and seems to have purposefully obscured just how much data they are compiling and what they do with it.

Users feel betrayed. The shock of these revelations has caused many to back away from Facebook, either by abandoning their accounts or deleting them altogether. But it is important for people to realize that Facebook is far from alone in the exploitation of user data and bucking the trend may be impossible at this point.

In early 2017, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix boasted that his company had amassed 4,000 to 5,000 “data points” on every adult American in the U.S. These data points could be anything from a person’s age, gender, or religion, to what kind of food they like to eat or what cars they drive. The company’s business model operates on the assumption that people who buy the same items and have similar interests — “the same ‘data points’” — likely have similar personalities. From there, one’s personality will help predict what you might buy or who you might vote for. “Behavior is driven by personality,” Mr. Nix once said.

Cambridge Analytica has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks for its controversial business practices. But it seems unlikely that Cambridge Analytica is alone in accruing this much data — which it supposedly obtained via personality quizzes shared on Facebook — and it seems unlikely that it is alone in abusing this data, as well.

Feel safe because you don’t use any Facebook products? Think again.

In her New York Times op-ed “Facebook’s surveillance machine,” University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci writes that Facebook has created “shadow profiles” of people who don’t use the website using information provided by friends and family. “This is an involuntary dossier from which you cannot opt out in the United States,” Ms. Tufekci writes.

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To make matters even trickier, for many people around the world Facebook is the Internet. There are no other sites available in certain portions of the world. And, while Americans are justifiably concerned about how their data is exploited, the citizens of developing nations are having their data exploited just as much and with even less recourse to try and protect it.

The FTC’s investigation into Facebook and its data practices will be enlightening and essential. But the United States and the rest of the world must continue to brainstorm ways to ensure that the privacy of Internet users is protected, and to prevent various actors from manipulating people with their personal data.

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