In the early years of the existence of Facebook’s platform, app developers were able to access the data of friends of a user who installed the app and gave the necessary permissions. That’s the method Cambridge Analytica used for allegedly accumulating personal data of 50 million Facebook users.
In a trenchant blog post, James Allworth describes the dramatic extent to which the Facebook platform through its Graph API allowed third party apps to harvest data from in theory every user registered and active on Facebook, until the rules were changed in 2015. “What was Facebook thinking?”, he rightly wonders.
But here is another, equally astonishing question: Why did no one else see this coming?
The API rules were well documented. The ability to access friends’ user data through apps was no secret to only a few in the know. Everyone who was only slightly interested in the Facebook platform could have been aware, and often was. Tech reporters were covering the Graph API. Marketers knew. All the knowledge was right here.
What most people (including me) were lacking was imagination. We saw the technical specs of the Facebook platform. We knew that a lot of apps were leveraging data from Facebook contacts. We were worried about privacy on Facebook. But there was no large scale outrage about this specific characteristic of the Facebook platform. Most of us did not think a bit deeper about the implications. Most of us lacked the imagination about how the fact that Facebook’s platform exposed friend data to third parties could lead to major political scandals, attempts to manipulate public opinion and the undermining of democracy.
This is not only a moment to criticize Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. This is a moment to be self-critical. Each and every pundit and tech commentator who paid attention to the Facebook platform back then should do some introspection on why he/she didn’t see that one coming.
Because if we didn’t see this one coming, even if it was right in front of our eyes, what other developments caused by the internet and global connectedness are we missing, even though they are playing out right in front of our eyes?
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