It was a cold February day at Harvard University when Mark Zuckerberg launched Facemash, the precursor of Facebook. The social networking site juxtaposed images of students and prompted users to pick the “hotter” person.
Despite its instant popularity among students, Harvard administration shut down the site within a few days and threatened to expel Zuckerberg on charges of breach of security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy.
Fourteen years later, recent events suggest that Zuckerberg’s Facebook, valued at $493 billion, faces similar challenges.
Today, Facebook harbors 2.1 billion users and is the world’s eighth-largest listed company, according to an article published in The Economist, along with top tech companies such as Apple, Alphabet, SalesForce and Microsoft.
Facebook’s latest privacy debacle involves Cambridge Analytica, a political data analytics firm, who is accused of harvesting 87 million users’ private information without permission.
This allegedly allowed Cambridge Analytica to target voter profiles to aid the Trump presidential campaign and has sparked a vigorous debate over the tech giant’s privacy policies.
Since the news surfaced, students and teachers in the Paly community have begun to question how Facebook and other big internet firms may be manipulating and selling their private data without informing users of where their information is being disseminated.
“This is what we get when billions of people entrust their personal data to a single corporation where who knows what goes on behind the scenes,” junior Ayush Gupta said. “Well, I guess now we know what goes on behind the scenes. Of course, I’m pretty peeved about it, but in hindsight I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Some believe that part of the problem lies in a lack of regulatory framework that has allowed tech titans like Facebook to freely manipulate people’s data.
“Right now we have zero protections,” said Grant Blackburn, an AP Economics teacher. “The companies get all the money from monopoly and oligopoly powers.”
For these reasons, some have even chosen to abstain from Facebook and its social media counterparts.
“I was already wary and suspicious [of social media companies] because [selling private data is] exactly what Google, Facebook and all those tech companies have been doing,” Blackburn said. “I personally am not on Facebook in part for that reason. Although I am also not naive to suspect that just because I’m not on Facebook doesn’t mean that my information is not out there.”
In fact, many are spooked by Facebook and other tech giants’ conspicuous data-mining practices on third-party websites.
“Every time I go to Amazon, every time I go to a website, I’m very aware that my personal, private life is out there somewhere and that somebody’s using it to profile me. They’ll have banner ads about the website I was just at, so I already am suspicious, angry and resentful.”
The issue of privacy and data breaches has also become significant in sectors outside of social media.
One of the biggest breaches occurred at Equifax, a large consumer credit reporting agency, in September 2017 where 143 million American consumers’ sensitive personal information was exposed.
“I am just as worried, if not more so, for the credit bureau breach that happened many months back in which credit information was released by a company that did not ask me for my permission to use that information,” Blackburn said. “But yet, they are doing it anyway so they can make money, and they’re forcing me to use their services if I want to get a loan, if I want to buy a house or any of that kind of stuff. I’m already mad.”
As a likely solution to the issue of user privacy, there is a growing consensus that lawmakers should increase user protections of private information.
“Yes, the recent news appears to demonstrate that there should be more regulation; at a minimum, users of social media should be told up front the ways the service will attempt to monetize whatever information the service gleans from the user,” said John Bungarden, the AP United States History teacher. “This seems [to be] a fair exchange; in this moment we can be reminded of the old cliche, there is no such thing as a free lunch. While it isn’t clear that social media companies should ever have been trusted, the consequences, both at individual and at national levels, of Facebook’s apparently cavalier attitude about individual information continue to reverberate.”
Although Facebook’s global subscriber count is increasing, the younger generations at Paly are actually less prevalent on Facebook, citing a growing mistrust for the behemoth’s privacy policies.
Freshman Justin Qiu, a newcomer to Facebook, shares Bungarden’s view that more can be done to protect users.
“The government does need stricter and more fluid data laws because personal data is very powerful and sensitive information,” Qiu said. “Users should be clearly presented the option to not allow their personal info to be shown to third-party companies.”
Just as corporations are prone to third-party actors harvesting users’ private information, Paly was also hit with a data breach exposing student academic information in October, indicating the widespread risks of inadequately secured data.
“I definitely think more should be done to protect sensitive data like the student data that was released in the PAUSD breach. But we share more information on social media than ever before, and with that comes a higher level of risk.”
Adora Zheng, freshman class president
However, while it may seem obvious that more protections are needed, the issue remains complex.
“We have to be careful about what we want to do and how we fix this problem because I don’t think we all want to watch advertisements in order to use free services,” Blackburn said. “I don’t think we all want to pay for everything that we are doing either. So there’s a careful balance that needs to be struck, but I do believe that there are stronger standards that can be set, and that there can be ways to ameliorate problems that come up when they come up.”