By Marshall Lymburn | Opinion Editor

Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress following a grab of Facebook information for political aims. (Courtesy of Indiawest)

Last year, I wrote a piece for The Collegian that explored net neutrality. In my research, I found that almost anywhere you tread in cyberspace, you leave a data footprint. Companies collect this data and sell it to advertisers who target you. Have you ever been browsing for a new pair of earbuds and then found your Facebook or Instagram feed plagued by advertisements for them minutes later? This process of targeted advertising is old news to any business trying to sell a product online, but to the public it has become new news, unveiled by the seemingly nefarious actions of the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica.

In short, here’s what happened. An associate of Cambridge Analytica designed an app, called This Is Your Life, in which users were paid to fill out a series of surveys. The app, however, allowed This Is Your Life to collect their data, and, if their phone settings allowed it, the data of all their friends. From the 300,000 people who downloaded and submitted their information to the app, the data of 87 million people was harvested. This information was funneled back into Cambridge Analytica, which used the information specifically to target voters during the 2016 election as well as the Brexit vote, in favor of the Trump campaign and Britain’s move to leave the European Union. Much of this political targeting was done through Facebook.

Following the breaking of this story, much of the frustration has fallen on Facebook, leading Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress. But, as many have since claimed, this move is not Facebook “stealing your data.” This is Facebook’s business model. Nothing you do online is neutral or anonymous, and this is something we all have to get used to as our lives become increasingly digital. If this disturbs you, perhaps it is again salient to tackle the issues brought up by the reality of data harvesting both politically and personally.

Politically, there is no legislation in sight on the side of net neutrality. Soon after he came into office, President Trump scrubbed a bill set to establish some limits on a company’s ability to harvest data. On the other side of the argument, my previous statement that data harvesting is Facebook’s “business model” was not hyperbole. Because Facebook harvests it’s users information, anyone can sign up to use Facebook for free. It is because of these companies that we are able connect as freely as we do through social media services.

Personally, the experience of using many apps gives the impression that what we post online is ephemeral. A few scroll flicks and that picture or quote you read is as good as gone. But even after you’ve long forgotten it, that data can provide companies useful information about how to target you for political or consumer means. Everything you put online can, and often does, give data analytics companies a more and more accurate profile of who you are, what you like, and how you think. “I’ll simply be more careful about what I post,” you might think. But maintaining even a sliver of online anonymity is nearly impossible and becoming hopeless. Simply plugging your phone number into Facebook gives it the ability to track your location, use your contacts, and scan the web for any other intersecting locations through which they can gain your information.

For all due purpose, it seems as if the paranoid psychosis of a conspiracy theorist a decade ago has come to fruition. But these systems exist and will only continue to be more precise. I personally share very little about myself online: My Facebook account is virtually defunct, and my main source of social media is Instagram. But I don’t have a scruple about my online anonymity being completely compromised and neither should you. Perhaps you care; perhaps you don’t. The best we can do is inform ourselves moving forward and keep our fingers crossed that some form of net-neutrality-based legislation comes across the table under a new president. For the record, I do not believe we should outright proscribe data analytics. But I think that some regulation, especially at this point of transparency, is sorely needed.

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