By PETER LoPINTO
Cambridge Analytica took advantage of Facebook’s app permissions, which is something you’ve likely encountered before. If you’ve played Farmville, Words with Friends, or taken a quiz to find out what Friends character you are, you’ve been prompted to allow these apps access to portions of your Facebook profile information. These permissions can include access to all of your likes on posts, your friend list information, relationship status, timeline posts, photos, and more.
Cambridge Analytica took advantage of access to likes on posts, paying about 270,000 people a few dollars each to provide access to their Facebook accounts. Their dataset was then increased to 5 million people as these 270,000 users also gave access to their friends’ likes (note: in 2014, Facebook stopped allowing apps the ability to collect information from your friends’ accounts; they now have to agree with the app’s permissions on their own for their data to be given). Using these 5 million data points, Cambridge Analytica was able to use algorithms to categorize people into voter groups, so they could make very targeted ad campaigns to either suppress or bolster voter desires depending on who they were predicted to be voting for.
If you have used Facebook over the years, it is likely that you have at some point absentmindedly given out permissions without thinking of these levels of repercussions. There may be an argument here to completely abandon Facebook due to privacy concerns (as well as concerns over studies that show negative mental health associations with the social media service), but that is a personal decision that everyone must weigh out on their own. In the meantime, here is how you can monitor and change the access that apps have to your Facebook data.
Accessing Facebook, click on the arrow on the top left of the page (in the blue bar) and click settings. From there, click apps. What appears is a list of every app that you ever gave permissions to. When you tell an app to login through Facebook, you agree to default permissions, and they are listed here. As a personal example, while writing this article I discovered that I gave Fandango access to my public profile, friend list, events, likes, and email address. Now while my public profile info can be seen by anyone, the only other permission that Fandango would actually need in that list would be my email address: everything else is Fandango taking advantage of the default settings, which allows them to siphon your data from Facebook.
To change the permissions on a particular app, click the pencil icon. From there click the checkboxes to enable or disable permissions. Make sure to consider what the app is and try to imagine scenarios in which you would want it to have access to this information. Maybe Words with Friends can have access to your friend list (since you may want to challenge them to a game), but Fandango has no need for that information as its main function is to purchase movie tickets.
For the apps that you’re no longer using, you can delete them by clicking the checkbox to the right of the pencil and then clicking delete at the top right of the list of apps. And make sure to click “show all” to see the complete list of apps that have permissions.
One last important note about data. In a way, digital data lasts forever. Even if Cambridge Analytica live streams video of 50 million users’ data being deleted from their servers, there could still be multiple copies of that data somewhere else. Any of the data that you’re giving to these companies may outlive all of us. As technology improves, the mechanization of your data only increases in strength; even a decade ago the idea of getting people’s info for a few million dollars and influencing an election was hard to believe. What will your data be doing in the next decade?
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