Facebook's Congressional Hearing: This Isn't About Privacy

Alex Deleon Headshot

Over the last two weeks, I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with clients looking for my opinion on the news cycle surrounding Facebook and the congressional hearing that came out of it.

These conversations have ranged far and wide. My largest client – an eCommerce giant with millions of fans – spent 72 hours kicking around the idea of dropping completely out of Facebook (a la Elon Musk). Several of my clients asked if I thought it made sense to scale back, or eliminate altogether, their Facebook ad spends. Most, though, just wanted to know what in the world was happening at Facebook and (more importantly) how I could help protect their customer’s privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica debacle.

Ian Lurie already wrote a great piece earlier this week on why marketers shouldn’t be overreacting, and it’s worth a read for all the practitioners out there.

In the wake of yesterday’s congressional hearings, my take for everyone else not deeply embedded as a practitioner is as follows: This isn’t really about privacy, and it never was. 

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Cambridge Analytica never hacked Facebook’s database, they only ran ads on Facebook. They didn’t steal the innumerable stacks of email lists uploaded to the platform by advertising players. They didn’t even trick people into giving their data away. No, they simply incentived users to willingly give them access to their personal profiles. Then they exploited loopholes left open by Facebook to harvest that user data, which was in turn fed back into Facebook’s advertising platform to power misleading ads.

Throwing the catch-all term “privacy” into this mess is a cop out. It shifts attention onto Facebook, obscuring the damning fact that, for a measly $2, tens of millions of users handed Cambridge Analytica access to the data it needed to influence the 2016 election.

To be clear, I’m not saying Facebook is blameless. They knew about these exploits for years, knew that hundreds of advertisers were making use of them in one way or another, and looked the other way until they were forced to address the situation by lawmakers and public perception.

But Facebook wasn’t hacked. Their system, such as it is, wasn’t directly breached. It isn’t inherently unsafe to use Facebook or participate as an advertiser on the platform.

Personal data protection concept. Cabinet full of files and folders. 3D rendered illustration.

Personal data protection concept. Cabinet full of files and folders. 3D rendered illustration.

The hard truth here is that while nearly every news article written over the last 48 hours focuses on privacy, “loss” of that concept was only ever corollary to the real culprit here: our collective inability responsibly manage our own digital data.

As a digital advertiser, my job rests on understanding how to reach users for my clients. In recent years, I’ve leveraged Facebook’s marketing platform to drive revenue off direct purchase, build brand awareness, and even obtain personal user data like emails and phone numbers directly off of lead forms on the platform.

It happens less now that I’ve been doing this for so long, but there are still times when I shake my head at how easy it is to get personal information from users online. For something as intangible as a “free” PDF guide, I can get thousands of users to submit their name, email and phone number for as little as $1 per submission. Portent is as far from a Cambridge Analytica as you can get, but we have hundreds of thousands of pieces of user data at our disposal. You can bet that thousands of other agencies across the country have even more.

This should make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, though I’ve long since learned to cope (as any good advertiser must). And if you think what I’ve laid out above is bad, spend time reviewing what you hand off to Google. I’ve personally made peace with trading my life away for the benefit of Google’s personalized assistance (thank god for bus schedule reminders), but how they’ve managed to skate through this entire news cycle without major mention is beyond me. Their “privacy” concerns should make Facebook’s pale by comparison.

Image result for google privacy

The short of it is this: privacy is well and good, but laying blame at Facebook’s feet for the situation now making headlines allows many of us to ignore the habits we’ve developed that brought this around in the first place.

And maybe think twice next time before clicking your next ad.

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    1. I think it would be more accurate to characterize my take as saying that we, as users, need to take responsibility for intelligently sharing our information on platforms like Facebook. I’d expect a platform like Facebook to take common sense steps to protecting the data I provide them (which they’re now being forced to do) but if I choose to hand off my name, email, phone number, birthdate and address to a company on a lead ad… well, that’s on me, isn’t it?

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