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You hated the NSA. So why not Facebook?

“And when memory failed and written records were falsified—when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.” Thus spoke George Orwell of the new status quo in 1984: once we become attuned to one way of seeing things and doing things, we’re helpless to see or do things in any other way.

This learned dependence could explain why Facebook still exists, despite its abject failure to protect users’ data. According to Wired, Cambridge professor Aleskandr Kogan requested access to Facebook user data for a research project. He developed an app which—unbeknownst to users—“granted access to many of their Facebook friends’ likes and interests as well [as their own].” That’s how an academic managed to scrape data on some 50 million Facebook users. Kogan then sold that data to Cambridge Analytica in violation of Facebook policies. And now, per The Washington Post, whistleblower Christopher Wylie has shone light into dark places. It’s nothing to worry about, just a massive campaign of voter manipulation which may have swayed the 2016 presidential election.

This story is not new. The Guardian broke the news in December 2015, reporting “longstanding ethical and privacy issues about the way academics hoovered up personal data” on Facebook. Don’t be surprised if Facebook didn’t put that story in your news feed.

This failure to protect users’ data is unconscionable but unsurprising. Facebook’s history is a litany of privacy abuses. Wired reports that Facebook waited until this year to “disclose [the abuses] and to suspend Cambridge [Analytica] and [Aleksandr] Kogan from its platform.” With a response time that fast, don’t you feel safe? In 2016, Facebook altered the terms of service of WhatsApp to acquire user’s phone numbers and data. In 2014, Facebook tried to alter users’ emotions through the manipulation of news feed content. And let’s not forget cyberbullying, 87 percent of which happens on Facebook, according to a 2015 report from the Daily Mail.

Facebook’s mission to connect the world knows no bounds. All you have to do is listen to VP Andrew Bosworth’s comments in a now-disavowed 2016 memo reported by The Washington Post: “Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies…Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.” Connecting people is Facebook’s manifest destiny—regardless of what happens to those people themselves.

This recent scandal reminds me of another: the 2013-2014 revelations surrounding the NSA’s Hydra-headed surveillance system. Prism, per the BBC, was used to collect user data from multiple web platforms (our good friend Facebook among them). MYSTIC and RETRO, per The Washington Post, could collect all data from a nation’s telephone system. And FASCIA, lest we forget, collected “trillions of device-location records.”

We were mad at the NSA. The Pew Research Center tracked on American disapproval of the NSA as of 2014. 54 percent of Americans disapproved of mass collection in the interests of national security. 74 percent would not sacrifice civil liberties for security. 93 percent wanted to control who could access their information, while 90 percent wanted to control what could be accessed. But here’s the kicker: just 6 percent of Americans felt that Uncle Sam could keep their information “private and secure.” The NSA would store Americans’ information on government servers and only access (warrant or no) it if it became “relevant to a national security investigation,” according to Business Insider. And still, we didn’t trust the NSA.

We were mad at the NSA, which took the odd step to protect our data. So why aren’t we mad at Facebook, which left our data flapping in the breeze? The NSA collected our information and put in a deep dark corner of Uncle Sam’s server farm, and we were ready to storm the Bastille. Facebook left our data in the open, usable to anyone who had “research purposes,” and we go on using the platform like nothing has changed? We decried the NSA, but open our lives to whatever server farm we please. We worry about the police state, but surrender our every detail to the ether. Either we are simply negligent or simply hypocritical.

The time has come to walk away from Facebook. The time has never been better.

Facebook began with allegations of misconduct. According to Business Insider, Zuckerberg may have hacked competing websites to make them less useful. And let’s not forget that Zuckerberg’s Facebook forerunner, Facemash, was used to rank the physical appearances of his female classmates, per CNN. Zuckerberg has pulled off an historic first: he’s perhaps the only male executive in California who hasn’t been deservedly run out on a rail for his gross sexism.

Let’s not forget that Facebook self-admittedly harms our mental health, as reported by The Guardian. A former executive observed that the company facilitates “No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation [and] mistruth.” Facebook’s own blog acknowledges that “social media” can engender “negative social comparison.” With all our talk of social detachment and isolation, perhaps it’s time we started spending more time in a world that actually exists.

But are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater? What about Facebook’s ability to help us organize social movements? Have no fear. There was a time in the days of yore—before the early 2000s, to be precise—when people who wanted to do something did it face to face. In the last century, democracy did just fine without Facebook. Women’s suffrage, Irish independence, anti-Nazi resistance, Indian independence, a plethora of African independence movements, the civil rights and anti-war movements—to name a few—all succeeded sans Facebook. We’ll do just fine on our own.

I’ll keep my Facebook profile for now, but exclusively for posting columns, and only because I have to. But we should all put distance between Facebook and ourselves. We should heed the words of Confucius: “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.” Live life where it’s real. Live a life that goes on, even when the power goes out.

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity junior. His column runs on alternate Mondays.

Tim Kowalczyk | the academy matters

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "the academy matters," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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