Analysis

In privacy fight, we're asking Facebook the wrong questions

Don't be distracted by debates over how much of your data Facebook is sharing. The real issue is how much the social media giant still gathers about you.

Zuckerberg's fortune rose by $3 billion after the market decided he beat Congress at the wrong game

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was able to win his battle with Congress this week largely because lawmakers asked him the wrong questions. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

The U.S. Congress isn't exactly the best forum to untangle the intricate weaving of Facebook, your data and advertiser access. But its particular failings provided an ideal platform for Mark Zuckerberg to perch atop an extra seat cushion and deflect the conversation back to comfortable places.

Most of the geriatric politicians on hand lacked a fundamental understanding of what is at play. Which may be why investors clearly felt Zuckerberg came out ahead. 

Facebook shares initially fell as his testimony began, but by the time Day 2 of the hearings had wrapped Wednesday, Facebook stock had rebounded 5.3 per cent. Zuckerberg's personal fortune soared by about $3 billion.

Zuckerberg easily handled questions like "Do you think you're too powerful" and "Would you work with us in terms of what regulations you think are necessary in your industry?" 

And why wouldn't he? They were the wrong questions.

Zuckerberg faced a phalanx of questions and cameras, but based on the reaction in the stock market, he acquitted himself well. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

The entire debate was focused on how Facebook allows advertisers to exploit your data to better target potential customers. But Ophir Gottlieb, the CEO of Capital Markets Laboratories, says that misses the bigger point.

"It's all been about data access," Gottlieb says, "not data collection." 

Ophir Gottlieb, CEO of Capital Market Laboratories, on Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to U.S. Congress and where it might take Facebook 12:39

And data collection is what Facebook does best.

Facebook's CEO had been called to Washington to answer grave concerns about what the social media giant knows about us and how our intimate details are passed along to third-party advertisers. For two days, he diligently, politely and keenly answered those questions.

On Day 1, Zuckerberg apologized and promised a largely deferential Senate committee that he would do better. Day 2 brought the House committee and a tougher line of questioning. 

But both days highlighted attention where it didn't need to be, while demanding answers to the wrong questions.

Mara Einstein of City University of New York on the information that Facebook shares with advertisers 9:22

That's why Gottlieb says the Congressional hearings were destined to fail. Or at the very least, to play to Facebook's strength.

"There are things Facebook collects about you, that it estimates about you that are salacious, that would shock you," Gottlieb told CBC News. "There's never been any discussion about whether Facebook should collect less data about you."

What Facebook knows about you

The sheer volume of data Facebook keeps on most of us is staggering. Sure, it has all the information you post: your birthday, your interests, your likes. But that's just scratching the surface. Colleague Matthew Braga looked at some of these issues this week. Others here, here and here show just how deep and broad the Facebook dragnet really is.

Look at the top of just about any web page (this one included) and you'll see a small button allowing you to "like" it on Facebook. Seems harmless enough. But you may not realize that the social media company uses that button to track your online activities even when you aren't logged on to Facebook.

The ubiquitous Facebook 'like' button is not as harmless as you think. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

DuckDuckGo, a vehemently pro-privacy search engine, claims Facebook has tracking software on hundreds of thousands of the world's top websites. That is why DuckDuckGo ranks its web results based on how much tracking goes on behind the curtain — and vows it will never sell your browsing data to anyone.

Facebook keeps what are called "shadow profiles" of non-users. When someone uploads their contacts to Facebook, the social media giant uses that as a starting point to build a profile on those who don't have a profile. By collecting photos of unnamed people, or email addresses it knows its users contact, the company can figure out who new people are and who else they know — even if they don't have a Facebook account.

Missed opportunity

Author and media studies professor Mara Einstein says Congress had a unique chance to grill Zuckerberg on how these systems work. But they just didn't have the technological literacy to properly hold him to account.

One New York Times reporter compared the hearings to a five-hour tech support call, with Zuckerberg patiently explaining the basics to unaware politicians. Einstein says that has to change.

"It's been in the industry's best interest to make this feel as complicated as possible if they can," she told CBC News. Faced with tough questions, tech titans love to deflect and talk about arcane technical terms like APIs (application programming interfaces) and KPIs (key performance indicators).

"(They) say, 'Oh, you don't understand this,'" she says, and Zuckerberg was no exception. Every time he didn't want to answer a question, he resorted to jargon.

But you don't need to know how a TV works to understand how advertising affects us, and the same thing is of Facebook and the internet, she says.

"We just need to know what Facebook is doing and how they're tracking us and how we can take responsibility for whether or not we want to be involved in that process."

It's up to us

Sounds simple enough. But for far too long, users have been complacent about their data, happy to hand over reams of information about themselves for nebulous and meagre rewards.

The Facebook scandal is an excellent reminder that it's long past time for us all to start giving a collective thumbs down to mindlessly clicking away our privacy. One inane quiz at a time.

Follow Peter on twitter: @armstrongcbc

About the Author

Peter Armstrong

Senior Business reporter for CBC News. A former host of On the Money and World Report on CBC Radio, Peter Armstrong has been a foreign correspondent and parliamentary reporter for CBC. Twitter: @armstrongcbc

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