Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have been in major damage control mode since the Cambridge Analytica news broke. There was the congressional grilling this week, and people are deleting their accounts. But to think this is an ethical issue just for high tech is wrong. Virtually every industry, and companies of all sizes, are implicated and have been for decades as the collection and use of personal data is that old.
Perhaps what has made people wonder most recently is the breadth and brashness of the vision. Speaking with Stephen Dubner on Freakonomics Radio, Zuckerberg said the following of how to "promote positive discourse":
[I]f you want to have a debate where people engage productively, the first and most important thing is to first connect with that person over something that you have in common. Right, so if you just go into an internet comment thread and you start debating gun control, that's probably not going to be super productive. I mean, it can be in some cases. But it's easy to dehumanize the other people, think about them as not human, not empathize with them. So, a lot of what I think social networks can do well, and these communities, are first you connect over something that you have in common. So, you recognize that the other person is a person. And I think communities in that way act as a jumping off point.
Zuckerberg apparently wants to engage in social engineering, for what he sees as the good of society. And he wants the company to make bundles of money, of course. The route to both is the mathematical application of data, both on the individual level and aggregated to groups. This is the real world example, on a more elementary level, of what you might expect from Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of novels, whose basic concept depended on a supposed scientific approach to understand, predict, and, ultimately, shape mass behavior.
Ah, quelle horreur! Right and left you saw people, even some who made their fortunes with Facebook, scramble out of the way. All the attention fell on high tech, which was snorting up people's personal data faster than an anteater could clear out an anthill.
However, this is only the most recent example of a decades-long practice that started with credit bureaus in the 1950s. They didn't come under real regulation in the U.S. until 1970. In fact, it wasn't until the mid-1990s that most consumers even heard of then secret credit scores.
In the late 1960s, companies began to collect and sell consumer information to marketers that wanted to more accurately target their campaigns. This turned into an enormous industry. One major player, Acxiom, pulled in $880 million in revenue during 2017. Alliance Data Systems did $7.7 billion. Experian, one of the three big credit reporting companies, also provides data on consumers to marketers and did $4.3 billion in its 2017 fiscal year.
The variety of information these companies keep on consumers is at least as extensive as what Facebook does, and likely more so. I went to AboutTheData.com, Acxiom's consumer site, to see what information the company had on me. Not all of it was accurate, but the amount they try to track is eye-opening and includes:
- marital state
- number of children and their approximate ages
- political party affiliation
- type of property and how long you were there
- approximate income
- number and make of cars and your insurance renewal date
- lines of credit and types of credit cards
- purchase activity in frequency, types of goods, and average spending
- interests in various topic categories
That is just one data broker. There are many and although you can usually opt out of their listings, you need to do so with each one separately.
Business and the country don't have a Facebook problem. We have a personal data problem. Those with the problem aren't just the companies that collect the data, but all the ones that use it to better target their marketing.
It could be that eventually Facebook will weather the tempest and people will forget. But the topic keeps coming up and who wants to be at the losing end of public scrutiny? Both the ethical and practical issues face companies of all sizes that seek available data.
The question is whether you hope in your own anonymity of the process or realize that you also could be caught up with mounds of adverse publicity. To say nothing of the need one might hope people would have to look at themselves in a mirror. Gotta check the hair before a big meeting.