The U.S. has a Big Data Problem

The latest revelations, regarding what Facebook really does with user data, indicate they gave “partner companies” access to user information that may have included things as personal as user’s private messages to one another. Facebook stated they only did this with user consent. How obvious the granting of this consent was to Facebook or partner company customers, remains to be seen. I immediately thought of the number of times it was suggested I “sign in using Facebook” when accessing other websites and applications and how glad I am I declined that perceived convenience. I knew enough to have assumed Facebook wasn’t offering this option purely because they are focused on what’s easiest for me.

While I find the latest news a bit disheartening, I can’t say I am surprised. It seems the measure of success in business, especially the business of technology, is revenue or capital investment pure and simple.

Gobs and gobs of money seems to be the primary objective and the founder with the biggest pot is bestowed the greatest accolades and deemed “genius” in their ability to garner such wealth.

Less value is placed on the integrity of the company or any responsibility beyond amassing fortunes or who may be harmed in the process. When Facebook launched in 2004 I would venture it safe to say very few of us were thinking about the information we were sharing or what was being done with that information. We knew we didn’t have to “pay” for it, meaning we didn’t have to pay money and that it seemed like a pretty cool way to connect with people from our present and out past. I remember wondering how they made money if it was free. I learned fairly quickly that the money was made by advertising. Mostly because I’m nosy and just like to know details like that and partly because it came to my attention when I started to see ads for items I had looked at and thought about purchasing online.  Suddenly, ads for cookware and clogs started to appear on the side of my Facebook news feed. I recall seeing an interview with Zuckerberg where he stated “Facebook will always be free.” Those words ring hollow now and “free” seems a subjective term. Most of us just thought it was pretty amazing that Facebook knew us so well. The closest thing I ever heard to an objection was “it’s almost creepy.” It wasn’t creepy enough to pull us away from its clutches. It seems Facebook counts on the fact that users don’t poke around or pay attention enough to be aware or concerned about what is happening behind the curtain where this this data gobbling, money making monster lives. It’s not all their fault. We bought in, we gave them our phone number when they asked for it telling us it was to help keep our account more secure. We turned on location settings so we could more easily share exactly where we were when posting that cool vacation photo. Little by little they set out to woo us with promises of easier access to make purchases online or to share updates on other social media sites or to connect with classmates from our alma mater.  Most of us were none the wiser and maybe still don’t care that Facebook knows how old we are, how much money we make, where we live, if we are religious or not, what our education level is or what our favorite restaurant is when we are on our family vacations.  I wonder at what point it will cross a line. Which piece of information is too private or personal if exploited, to use to try and sell us something? What entity will we deem too nefarious to allow access to this data and into the fabric of our lives?

I find it laughable and somewhat insulting that Zuckerberg, in his testimony to congress said “We don’t sell data.” He went on to say how much of a misconception it is that Facebook sells data. That’s where Zuckerberg lost me because that statement was an indication he can’t be trusted and is willing to dupe consumers to turn a profit.  Let’s be very clear, Facebook makes it’s money by selling access to customers and providing the ability to target those customers with detailed precision based on DATA. I know because I own a company that has advertised on Facebook. I can choose not only a geographic location that I want these ads to run but also the income of the individuals I want to sell to, their level of education, their hobbies and habits, where they shop and what they shop for, whether or not they have children, if they work in a particular industry and until a few months ago, their religion and ethnicity. In my book, Mr. Zuckerberg, you are selling data. Don’t insult us with semantics, you’re smarter than that. We are too.

While I may have an adjusted opinion of not only Mark Zuckerberg but the leaders of every technology organization that is less than forthcoming about what they are doing with customer data, there’s blame to go around. The government has been slow at recognizing the need for consumer protection as it relates to data and consumers have been willing to turn a blind eye when red flags have been raised that indicate they should pay closer attention.  Our desire to share what we had for lunch or our kids athletic accomplishments seems to supercede concern over how our personal information is being used and who has access to it. As a technology company founder and CEO, I prefer to be more forthcoming about how we protect consumer data and I am committed to upholding that commitment because it’s what I also expect as a consumer.

Michelle Chaffee
About the author: 

Michelle Chaffee is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Älska, a technology solution created to empower patients and their caregivers through improved communication with care teams, secure, mobile storage of personal health records and tools to better manage chronic disease.  She is based in Minneapolis, MN.  Follow her on Twitter.