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Facebook's complacency with users' data is as terrifying as it is dangerous



Of the many complaints that fill the Pique newsroom on a regular basis (we reporters are a pretty whiny bunch), one of the most frequent is our collective frustration at having to spend so much time on Facebook.

Of course, it's not like Mark Zuckerberg has a gun to our heads or anything, but when you work in the news business, Facebook is a very effective way to keep your finger on the pulse of a community.

After the latest New York Times revelation, however, I'm starting to rethink my stance.

The investigation revealed that Facebook's misuse of millions of users' personal data was worse than we had been led to believe. Far worse.

Interviews with close to 50 former employees along with the review of 270 pages of internal company documents showed that the social-media giant allowed its tech partners far greater access to data than it had previously disclosed. Microsoft's search engine, Bing, was allowed to see the names of nearly all Facebook users' friends without consent. Netflix, Spotify and the Royal Bank of Canada had the ability to view, write and delete users' private messages. Yahoo, Sony and Microsoft, among others, could still obtain users' email addresses through their friends as recently as last summer, well after Facebook said that it had stopped the practice years earlier. And it's not just those who shared data through the thousands of apps available on the platform that are vulnerable; the story revealed that some companies had access to users' personal data even if they had disabled all sharing.

And on and on it goes.

Unsurprisingly, the social network has assured its 2.2-billion users that its contracts required partners to abide by Facebook's data-sharing policies, but with little transparency and even less independent oversight, it's hard to trust a company that has repeatedly misled us.

People in the tech world have been sounding the alarm bells since the Times story came out on Dec. 18. But for the average user, it can be easy to dismiss this latest bombshell. After all, the complete and utter invasion of privacy that Facebook, whether knowingly or not (and I tend to lean towards the former), facilitated, feels abstract and impersonal in a way that someone rifling through your private letters or bank statements does not. But we need to care about this issue, even if we haven't felt its direct impact firsthand. Data is the currency of the digital age, and a valuable one at that. Sitting before U.S. Congress in April, Zuckerberg reassured officials that "We don't sell data to anyone." While that is technically true, Zuckerberg failed to mention that, in its aggressive push to expand its user base, Facebook struck deals to share information with dozens of Silicon Valley companies through its in-platform apps. Those companies had more intrusive access than Facebook has let on, and far greater access than even Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm linked to Donald Trump's presidential campaign that was revealed, in March, to have illicitly harvested users' information without their consent for political purposes.

That scandal is thought by many privacy experts to have been a watershed moment in the public's understanding of personal data. We can only hazard a guess at how significantly Cambridge Analytica manipulated the 2016 presidential election (or Brexit, for that matter), but it surely played a role. It might be years before we fully grasp the true ramifications of Facebook's sheer complacency with our personal data. But why wait? More than $100 billion was knocked off Facebook's share price in the days that followed the Cambridge Analytica story, and yet, the company continued to hide the reality of its privacy practices, all while reassuring the public and regulators that users ultimately had the final control over their own data.

Facebook has shown us it can't be trusted, so now we need to show Facebook the true collective power of community by deleting it and not looking back.

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