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Tech Savvy: Facebook scandal fallout leads to falling out for users

Always remember: When it comes to the internet, if the service is free, more likely than not the product they're selling is you.

It may be that this simple adage has never been more relevant. As the fallout from Facebook's gaff with Cambridge Analytica continues to develop and more sordid details of the scandal come to light, it bodes the question—should we be disgusted, or for matter surprised that the world's largest social media corporation is selling "us" to the highest bidder?

The scandal involves the unauthorized seizure of personal, sometimes sensitive information for more than 87 million people (and counting) during the 2016 election by the data mining firm. It has weighty implications, both politically in a macro sense, and at the individual in a micro sense.

Does the scandal indicate that Facebook isn't protecting its users, isn't acting as an independent arbiter of information and/or isn't committed to the human rights of its members? It's difficult to say if the actions of Facebook are the product of malice or simply neglect. The sensitive data was gleaned, for the most part, in a legitimate manner (though, I wouldn't be surprised if many tech pundits and casual users are questioning just how legal these methods should be). Facebook has always favored access to researchers over corporations, the crux of this situation is that—while the tool, a survey, was dressed up as research—the beneficiaries of this pilfered survey were corporate bigwigs at Cambridge Analytica, an organization sporting questionable methods and undoubtedly partisan motivations.

Recently, Facebook's CTO Mark Schroepfer admitted they had failed to read the terms and conditions of the app involved in the survey-- so, apparently, they're human just like the rest of us. To give the skinny, Zuckerberg accused the developer of violating Facebook's guidelines; the developer, a professor at Cambridge University, fired back by stating that hundreds of similar apps still passed mustard, despite having almost identical functions. Well, that's encouraging. No bueno.

Zuckerberg and his brainchild might talk a good game—whether its finely crafted ads featuring dynamic and blissfully happy actors, public announcement posts on everyone's wall or carefully worded statements by the embattled CEO on Capitol Hill—the company's actions say otherwise. While Zuckerberg has welcomed—and, it seemed at times, even advocated for—regulation, Facebook recently moved the server data of 1.5 billion users from its international headquarters in Ireland to California where it will not be subject to European data protection laws taking effect May 25.

In doing so, the social media giant may dodge a future $1.6 billion fine for the cavalier handling of user data. It's akin to a hedge fund manager preaching transparency and accountability, even as he punches his ticket to a tax haven like the Cayman Islands or Monaco.

Is Facebook manipulating its users for personal gain? Maybe it's not the maniacal, monocle-eyed villainy its sometimes portrayed to be, but I think it would be naive to say otherwise. Then, this is old hat, run-of-the-mill. Political actors (and commercial ones, for that matter) have been trying to find better and better ways to pull our puppet strings for centuries. To accuse Facebook of this is to lump it in with General Motors, Coca-Cola, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Verizon Wireless, etc., etc.—which is to provide a list of corporate culprits, but to say nothing of the political bad eggs.

Boasting a staggering two billion users, Facebook isn't going anywhere soon. Though—with its aging user base and slowly flatlining growth—it's fair to wonder if the social media giant has already peaked and is now making its slow decline into irrelevance. Facebook was on something of a downward trend, even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In February, a flurry of reports: by Facebook itself, that it suffered a net loss of U.S. users in Quarter 4 of 2017—the first "negative" quarterly report in the company's history—and by the Guardian, giving a grim prognosis that Facebook is expected to lose 3 million users during the whole of 2018, as well as by tech analyst outlet eMarketer, which expected this year to represent the first year that less than half of the 12-17 age demographic would not use Facebook on any device.

With this in mind, should Facebook be abandoned in light of recent revelations? Will leaving Facebook (or just about any social media service) really reverse the rapid degradation of privacy itself? Or is it a lost cause from the start?

Jumping on the bandwagon

So you're thinking of ditching Facebook and leaving it all behind, huh? Maybe it doesn't sit right with how Facebook polarized voters with its faulty newsfeed algorithms or how it sold sensitive user data to partisan actors in the aforementioned paragraphs. Maybe you're just tired of all the negative mental health effects of social media use. Or, you're just not a fan of having so much of your smartphone battery life leeched away by the Facebook app.

Not so fast—first, it's not as easy as simply pulling a plug. Two, even after you've pulled that proverbial plug, it should be noted that whatever data you've posted, shared or populated during the sign-up process, this data is now forever out of your reach.

Your "likes" and "dislikes," what your interests are, what you look at and for how long, who you know, what you do, what words you use, tiny idiosyncrasies and broad stroke classifications, personal photos, other forms of visual documentation, contact information and enough raw text to fill a book—all of this "you" on the internet, what constitutes a psychographic profile, it doesn't go away once you're gone.

In fact, a haunting byproduct of the Information Age is that, even after we've truly gone and kicked the bucket, this data footprint, this digital shell of ourselves, will exist as a kind of ghostly afterglow for the conceivable future—even while we ourselves are no longer among the living.

For an idea of what this digital footprint entails—at least for Facebook—click on the drop-down arrow on the right-hand side of the blue navigation bar at the top of the screen, click "settings" and then the blue linked words that say "Download a copy."

Therein should be a pretty detailed record of your relationship with Facebook, and Facebook's intimate relationship with you, not to mention your shadowy relationship with a host of advertisers to boot—mine happened to be 507 megabytes. This record can vary significantly, from the rather skeletal record keeping of LinkedIn, to the Orwellian levels of personal data collection by Google. The sheer amount of carefully curated data is staggering.

Legal arguments around this issue typically invoke a concept known as The Right to be Forgotten—at different turns complex, baffling and intriguing, the debate highlights the realities of living in both digital and tactile worlds.

The Right to be Forgotten originally came up in court cases involving the posting of personal information online—ranging from old arrests and convictions, to embarrassing antics on video, to revenge porn and the breaking of nondisclosure agreements. A cursory look at these genres of unspeakables make the desire to sponge them from the internet self-evident.

The problem is that it's virtually impossible to erase things once they've reached the internet. Even victims of privacy who have considerable resources at their disposal are unable to completely eradicate this kind of digital footprint; doubly ditto for us poor plebeians—namely, if there is a will (or desire), tech savvy individuals will find a way to resurrect that footprint and bring it to light. Scrub all you want, mask it all you can, but the stain remains.

Facebook user data usually isn't quite as sensitive as, say, revenge porn, but the framework of the problem is largely the same. Users may delete their account—and maybe their peers on social media aren't able to view it—but the data remains, it just requires the right tools and know-how to dig it up.

Now, you can limit what makes it onto the internet and dictate to some degree what your digital footprint is from here on out—which is, honestly, the best most of us can hope for, short of cutting ourselves off from the internet altogether. However, what's done is done. The digital past is set in digital stone.

Deactivation vs. Deletion

When it comes to Facebook, there are two options user can consider when they're determining the future of their account—well, there's obviously three, but we're operating here under the assumption you're planning to call it quits.

The first option is to deactivate your Facebook account. Now, while your friends and peers may not be able to access your posts, images, clips, general information and so on, it isn't deleted. At any time, you can reactivate your account and the digital footprint, largely dormant, will be resurrected. This also means you can use Facebook Messenger as well—a key distinction because, as is often the case for many people, removing the prospect of removing Facebook is like removing your phone number. Not only are you blocking off the rest of the world, but the world is blocked off from you. It may seem that you're inconveniencing your friends by checking out. By keeping Facebook Messenger, you're keeping that line of communication open in some ways—however, be forewarned that by downloading Facebook Messenger you are essentially handing over any contacts you have on your phone as well.

To deactivate your Facebook account, refer to the following steps:

• Click the drop-down arrow located on the right-hand side of the blue navigation bar located on the top of the page.

• In the drop-down menu, select "Settings."

• Choose "General" in the left-hand column of options.

• Click "Manage your account."

• Click "Deactivate your account" and then follow the steps to confirm your decision.

Deleting a Facebook account is, as you might expect, more final—although, of course, color me sceptical when it comes to how "final" this deletion is. Everything should be wiped off of Facebook's servers within a 90-day period—although, it should be noted, that while the account is dormant for 14 days, you can still opt to have your account reactivated during this grace period. The only exception is message data—a common-sense measure as messages, by virtue being a direct social interaction between two accounts, is the property of both. It may be advisable to download your account data prior to initiating the deletion process, because personal items—such as photos—will be lost.

To delete your Facebook account, refer to the following steps:

• To download your account information in a neat folder, again click on the drop-down arrow on the right-hand side of the blue navigation bar at the top of the screen, click "settings" and then the blue linked words that say "Download a copy."

• Then, once you've been recovered what you want, enter "Facebook.com/help/delete_account" into the URL browser and you'll be taken to the deletion page.

• Click "Delete my account."

• The subsequent process—in which you'll be asked to give your password and verify you are a human and not a bot—will be completed by submitted your request at the bottom of the page.

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