As Zuckerberg continues his apology tour for Facebook's recent scandal, I've been thinking about something far more surprising than the social network harvesting our personal data for private companies or shady firms swaying elections using advanced technical means.
What has surprised me most is the amount of people who seemingly didn't realize this has been happening since the rise of the modern internet.
Cambridge Analytica is dominating the news reel but is hardly alone in their mission to build jarringly-robust psychographic profiles by seemingly any means necessary.
How do I know this? I once created a company that did the exact same thing. And our users revealed their most intimate secrets to us, willingly.
In 2009, I wrote a thesis for a company that would extract highly private personal insights from users on Facebook through social games and experiments. I called it SocialCrunch. Our mission might sound familiar:
SocialCrunch provides a consumer web application that is building a behavior graph of people on the Internet. The company collects information that helps businesses in creating market relevant content based on facts or sound bites collected from audiences and provides deep profiling, capturing data and trend research services.
Effectively, we created highly-addicting games that would ask deeply personal questions (about money, sex, medical history, consumer preferences, etc.) and then compare your results to your friends as an anonymous reward. We would then run this data through hardcore algorithms to create statistically significant mashups of this data, which ranged from the odd ("people who drink Coke have X percent more sex than people who drink Pepsi") to the wildly valuable ("people who drink Starbucks more than this many times per week are this much more likely to vote Democrat").
It won't surprise any readers that one of our first prospective clients was a major political party.
Unlike Cambridge Analytica, however, we strived to run our business ethically and above-board, which may have, in turn, hindered our growth and prospects. We ended up selling our tech off about five years ago.
But we weren't alone in the industry of psychographic data collection then, and it has only exploded in popularity since.
The advancements this week showing Facebook's complicity to Cambridge Analytica's abuse of Facebook data is an unbelievably massive breach of security and trust. In our current age of endless hacks and flubs by large corporations, this might appear to just be an egg-on-face moment for Facebook that a well-scripted apology could fix, until you realize that Facebook knew about this misuse for over two years, and not only did nothing to stop it, but also may have been downright complicit in the scheme. After all, there was probably an extraordinary amount of money (and power) to gain by doing so.
Perhaps it's because I've been in tech for over 20 years and have a sense of how internet business works, but the only thing that has shocked me through all of this is how little the public seemed to realize this is--and was--taking place at a global level.
Virtually every large internet company makes deals with the proverbial devil. At the end of the day, they are laser-focused on growth, power and shareholder return--not doing right by their consumers.
Google deals in broad-level surveillance, assists with military drone strikes and secretly records where you are and what you look at online.
Microsoft's products are basically wiretapping engines.
Uber tracks your every movement, loses customer data in secret, has killed at least one person directly and many others indirectly.
You get the idea.
Hopefully most Facebook users are able to see through the thinly veiled, cheeky "personality tests" or games to see "which celebrity you look like" and recognize what they really are: highly effective data collection mechanisms, further building out your online psychographic profile.
Despite this kind of everyday corruption that regularly blemishes news reports, this last super-public Facebook scandal has clearly caught people off-guard. So much so that #deletefacebook has been trending worldwide, even though deleting an account doesn't really work.
Personally, I am conscious that virtually every action I take online contributes to some psychographic profile. Perhaps with this mainstream development and newfound user outrage, we will either all conform to this understanding, or better yet, hold these companies accountable through regulation and penalties.