Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

I’m unmoved by the talk about the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations.

I was listening to Jon Lovett this afternoon, and he offered an elegantly inapt analogy. Just because a bank leaves its vault open and doesn’t hire guards, he said, doesn’t mean that, if robbers take the money, they aren’t stealing it.

The proper bank analogy, though, goes differently: he thinks depositors should get to approve every borrower.

Facebook is the bank.

Facebook users are the depositors.

We make the same deal with Facebook as the one we make with our banks: they can sell what we give them (Facebook gets our data; banks get our dollars) in exchange for making it easy for us to use it (data/dollars) when we want to.

We don’t ask our bank who they lend to, how much they charge, or what the borrowers are using it for. We just ask how many ATMs they have, how good their web site is, whether they support mobile payments. (We used to ask what their interest rate was. We don’t so much any more.)

Similarly, we don’t ask Facebook (or Google, or Snapchat) any of those questions about our data. We just ask that they have a nice app.

In the case of Cambridge Analytica, the analogy goes this way:

SCL – Facebook’s customer (and the owner of Cambridge Analytica) – bought a bunch of data. They did this using a quiz that took advantage of value Facebook offered its paying customers, and promised to use the data only in certain ways. Kinda like a borrower taking out a loan from a bank to finance construction, or a mortgage. But in the bank model, when you borrow for a specific purpose, the bank generally cares that you use it for that purpose, because they’ve underwritten your ability to pay for the money in the future with respect to that specific purpose. So, for example, the bank wires your mortgage proceeds to the seller of your property, not to you. They release the proceeds of the construction loan as the construction proceeds.

In this case, Facebook didn’t give a fuck what SCL did with the data. They sorta said they did. But honestly, why would they? Why should they?

SCL paid for it on each day the data transferred. Kinda like buying a gun. If I buy a gun, I may tell the store I’m not planning to rob a bank, kill someone, or otherwise break the law. But once I’ve left the store, the transaction’s over, the relationship is complete, and the vendor has little investment in what I do with it.

Or an apple. I buy an apple from a grocer who isn’t interested in whether I’m gonna give it to a teacher, slice it, bake it, or throw it at a car.

People are upset with Facebook for all the wrong reasons. Facebook is the bank. We are the depositors. If we don’t like what Facebook’s customers do with our data, we simply shouldn’t give it to Facebook to sell.


(Note: I still use Facebook. As N, I use it to allow me to be on Tinder. I never log in, and I never see ads. As N’s alter ego, I use it to follow the major life events of people who once were friends, or who are distant family. I only log in on my desktop, in incognito mode, using an ad blocker. Once every few weeks. I’d prefer to delete entirely, but alas, that would entail social and familial costs I’d prefer not to bear. I am hopeful that I don’t produce a penny of revenue for Facebook, but I can’t be sure. I long for a paid social network, one I can pay to provide me a service in exchange for money, and for the promise of NOT selling my data but, instead, keeping it secure.

In a post to come, I’ll have some thoughts about Google, Gmail, and email.)

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