Privacy in the Public Spotlight

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo by Noah Berger / AP

By: Savi Raghuraman | Student Life Editor   &   Lucy Terry | Student Life Editor

April 17, 2018

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by Congress in a pair of widely publicized hearings on Tuesday, April 10th and Wednesday, April 11th. The hearings called to investigate Facebook’s involvement in Cambridge Analytica’s improper data harvesting from Facebook profiles, an outrage recently made public by the media. Between the lines of dialogue about this particular scandal were broader implications of the need for protection of data and regulation of privacy on social media platforms in our digital society. 

Sydney Lantz, a junior at San Clemente High School, notes, “Cambridge Analytica couldn’t have got access to all that information without their partnership with Facebook.” Lantz believes “Facebook should take responsibility and make sure to work on their privacy issues,” a popular opinion apparently shared by much of Congress.

Zuckerberg sat under oath for 10 hours of fierce questioning by nearly 100 lawmakers from both parties over the course of the two days. He seemed to have few struggles during the Senate committee hearing Tuesday. Many of the Senators displayed a shocking lack of understanding of how Facebook worked, and their questions, which intended to challenge Zuckerberg on specifics about his involvement with Cambridge Analytica and on the central privacy issue, missed the mark. On Wednesday, however, the House gave the billionaire businessman a much harder time and there were many moments scattered throughout his second five hours in which his discomfort and hesitation were apparent.

It was in the summer of 2014 that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, hired a man named Aleksandr Kogan to collect profile information of Facebook users and what posts they liked. 300,000 people downloaded Kogan’s app and took a variety of surveys, and in return were paid a small amount of money. Not only did Kogan and his app collect data from the profiles of those who took the surveys, but information was also gathered from the profiles of their friends and then from the friends of their friends. The company disclosed that they would collect data on users and their friends in their terms of service and technically had permission by Facebook to do so. Up to 87 million people had data gathered on them, and at the moment there is no guarantee it will be destroyed.

Over the course of the hearings, Congress investigated two scandals; one was the aforementioned Cambridge Analytica data mining. Zuckerberg’s humble apology at the start of the hearing went unaccepted and the committees commenced their investigation, out for blood. The reason why both viewers and partakers of the hearings are so eager for deeply analytical questioning is because there are implications on Facebook’s troubling reputation, the privacy of the public, manipulation by the tech industry, and the outcomes of the past election. The second issue addressed in the hearings was whether or not Russian propaganda groups used the medium to create fake accounts, ads, and pages to influence the tides of the 2016 United States Presidential Election.

Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, there have been countless rumors about Russian interference and hacking attributing his win, which is what has spurred the creation of a special counsel lead by Robert Mueller, a former FBI Director. Many believe that the Cambridge Analytica data collection allowed Russian troll farms to better target users and sway their ideology leading up to election day, and those that do are outrage at the direct threat to our democracy and the corruptness of both Facebook and seemingly our government.

After the first day of hearings, investors seemed to be satisfied with Zuckerberg’s position, and the stock market saw an unprecedented 4.5% rise in the value of Facebook shares, which for most of 2018 had been dropping steadily. However, not all Americans share the same optimism.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley remarked at the start of the trial, “These events have ignited a larger discussion on consumers’ expectations and the future of data privacy in society,” and this discussion will likely continue among both lawmakers and the public. On the legislative side, many lawmakers in the House hearing threatened regulation of Facebook during the hearing, insinuating that they now couldn’t trust Facebook to regulate itself effectively. The question of whether Facebook had reached the state of monopoly and needed larger action than just regulation was also raised briefly. The hearings made clear that Congress and the public want answers on who can really control the use of individual data as well as a guarantee that Facebook will make more specific and well-communicated policies on data privacy. And while Facebook is in the spotlight on how it solves these issues, other technology and social media companies are feeling the pressure to change as well. It took a massive disruption of consumers’ privacy to start on the path to holding this industry accountable.

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