Tags: Cybersecurity | NSA/Surveillance | analytica | cambridge | congress

Don't Fall for Facebook Data Privacy Hysteria

Don't Fall for Facebook Data Privacy Hysteria

Wednesday, 02 May 2018 10:51 AM Current | Bio | Archive

There are two kinds of data privacy breaches, We shouldn't let the truly terrible nature of the one kind influence our evaluation of the other kind. Hackers who steal personal information — Social Security numbers, credit card and driver's license numbers, birth dates, etc. — from corporate computers and use it to steal billions are truly major problems. Anybody harmed by ID theft can testify to this.

Facebook has been vilified for a very different kind of privacy invasion, the use for political purposes of information about their attitudes and interests voluntarily supplied by Facebook members. Facebook does gather data about its subscribers so it can focus advertising on people most likely to respond. But much of the information causing the current uproar was not gathered by Facebook itself, but rather by games, questionnaires, and other challenges posted on Facebook by private parties and harvested by those parties.

A British company, Cambridge Analytica , used analysis of this data to help the Trump campaign.

The Trump organization merely used a modernized and scaled up version of techniques widely used in campaigns: public opinion polling, and focus groups. Knowing what cross sections of the public think, campaigners can tell as many people as possible what they want to hear. This may have little resemblance to politicians' actual opinions. Thus, polls and focus groups enable candidates to lie more effectively and to target different portfolios of lies to different groups. This is unfortunate because true leaders would tell voters, "No one can give you everything you want, since you want incompatible things."

Technologies enabling leaders to lie to voters more systematically are disheartening. But the techniques used by Cambridge Analytica are no worse than polling and focus groups. The hysteria about this is grossly overblown. We shouldn't be confused into taking it seriously by the groveling of Facebook's executives.

They understand the futility of reasoning with mobs smelling blood and members of Congress enjoying opportunities to preen. Naturally, they have been accused of not being apologetic enough. In situations like this there is never "enough." But they realize that people will soon lose interest and latch on to the next craze, allowing everyone to get back to business as usual.

Many politicians, both left and right, proclaim that we need to protect our privacy, but they don't explain why we need to do this outside of the personal financial context. Recall the uproar after data mining conducted by the National Security Agency came to light. The NSA kept track of calls from one telephone number to another. Responding to this, the New York Times editorialized (June 7, 2013) that Congress should enact "legislation to limit the collection of call records and the monitoring of Internet traffic to that of people suspected of terrorism, ending the mass warehousing of everyone’s data."

The Times missed the whole concept of data mining, where computers scan immense amounts of data (like which phone number calls which phone number, when, and for how long) and pick up patterns suggesting activity meriting further investigation. Collecting this information only for calls associated with people already under suspicion would make it unlikely to detect people who aren't under suspicion but ought to be.

The NSA didn't listen to what people were saying. If patterns were detected, authorities could wiretap specific people, but only after getting authorization by a court. This program hopefully harmed would-be terrorists, but aside from that how did this so-called invasion of our privacy injure anybody? How did it reduce our freedom to do anything we want to do?

Modern computers can scan tons of information, detecting patterns which could never be found by finite human investigators. At the time of the NSA stink, data mining techniques were already being used by astronomers, traffic control people, medical researchers, and in many other fields, improving our ability to understand the universe, make traffic flow more smoothly, and treat diseases. There was no reason not to exploit this technology to improve national security.

The terrorists warring against the U.S. never hesitated to use modern technology (cellphones, the internet, explosives, etc.) to further their plans. It was stupid to limit our own use of technology to limit the damage they could do. Unfortunately a bi-partisan coalition of paranoid liberals and libertarians forced the NSA to discontinue this program.

The NSA and Facebook cases remind us that we need to keep calm about making grand generalizations about "privacy," focus on invasions which cause serious harm, and not get distracted by red herrings in contexts where privacy has a very different meaning and "invasions" of it are basically harmless.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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The NSA and Facebook cases remind us that we need to keep calm about making grand generalizations about "privacy," focus on invasions which cause serious harm, and not get distracted by red herrings.
analytica, cambridge, congress
Wednesday, 02 May 2018 10:51 AM
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