Cracking the Codes: Responding to Facebook’s privacy scandals


Illustration by Sam Ko

Alex Goldstein

Cypress Toomey ’19 hovered her mouse over the “I Agree” button on Facebook’s terms and conditions, taking a beat to hesitate. Unlike many of her peers, she never felt the need to maintain an active presence on social media and understood that in creating an account, she was choosing to publicize a great deal of personal information.

She finally created an account to keep up with updates from her field hockey teammates, Toomey said. After making her profile, she began to scroll through her list of suggested friends.

Toomey noticed that the people Facebook was suggesting she “friend” were people she had no mutual friends with and had never searched for on the website. Rather, they were names that matched those in her contacts.

“It was a little bit unnerving because if Facebook has access to my contacts, I don’t know what else they have access to,” Toomey said.

After realizing Facebook had access to more than she was comfortable giving, Toomey deactivated her account.

“I did not feel a need for it, and I felt like my privacy would be better protected without it,” Toomey said. “I feel more secure in knowing that they no longer have access to my data.”

Recently, Facebook has been criticized for sharing user data with other companies and not making privacy options easily accessible.

The New York Times, working in collaboration with reporters from The Observer of London and The Guardian, uncovered that in one particular instance, a Cambridge University researcher received the data of around 300,000 Facebook members after requesting that they download an application and fill out a survey. This data was then given to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, who shared the information with members of the Donald Trump campaign. The scandal affected 87 million Facebook users, according to Forbes.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified at congressional hearings in April as lawmakers worked to decide how to regulate social media companies as well as investigate the Cambridge Analytica scandal and possible election interference.

Although Congress is investigating how Facebook should share personal data in the future, the Cambridge Analytica incident was not a data breach. When a Facebook user creates a profile and agrees to the company’s Data Policy, they allow Facebook to share the data with vendors, service providers and people conducting academic research as long as the partners adhere to strict confidentiality agreements.

Out of 334 students who responded to the Chronicle’s April poll, nine percent say they regularly read a company’s “terms and conditions” before signing them.

“When you provided that information to Facebook, you just kind of assumed that they wouldn’t do anything bad with it,” Director of Information Technology David Ruben said. “We all did. Now we’ve learned that that’s not true.”

It is important that students are aware of the privacy setting that they choose on their social media accounts, Ruben said. Recently, Facebook announced that it will now put all of their privacy options on one page to make it easier to manage.

“The bottom line that we all have to remember is we shouldn’t care if it’s Facebook or Apple or Microsoft or Google,” Ruben said. “They don’t have our best interest at heart. So, if you’re not going to protect your own privacy, they’re not going to do it for you.”

Users are also concerned about their privacy being violated because Facebook tracks the online search history of its users to target ads at specific people.

It can often feel like internet users are being watched every time they search for something online, Jess Grody ’19 said.

“It’s just kind of disorienting when you search for something and then you immediately start getting advertisements for it, because it’s a very visible reminder that our data is constantly being analyzed and tracked,” Grody said.

In the short time that she was a Facebook user, Toomey said she noticed on several occasions that the advertisements on her feed were a reflection of her recent browsing history. This combined with the suggested friends list contributed to her deactivating the account.

However, while he may not always pay attention to the ads on his Facebook feed, Ruben said he would rather see ads for things he is slightly interested in rather than ads for services he would never consider purchasing or using. Therefore, he feels it is justified for Facebook to track his online searches to ensure the ads he sees are targeted to his interests.

Although some students said that they do not feel like their data is safe on Facebook, Tosh Le ’19 said that he believes that in an era when social media is so prevalent, issues with privacy are inevitable.

“The reality of the world that we live in is that in this day and age of connectedness to the entire world, social media platforms like Facebook, or even simple browsers like Google, will take advantage of the information that we put online and utilize it to the best of their ability,” Le said.

Out of 329 students polled, 78 percent of students said they do not post personal information on Facebook. Jake Schroeder ’20 said he uses Facebook mostly to communicate with members of the school community and joined in order to be added to his class page and receive announcements about activities he is a part of.

“I am not a person who likes to post on Facebook,” Schroeder said. “All I have on Facebook is my profile photo and my connections with my family and friends, and I do not find it an issue that Facebook is selling simply my age and my name.”

While the story has recently received a lot of attention and scrutiny, these data-sharing policies are not new to Facebook or other social media outlets that follow similar guidelines.

“It’s upsetting obviously, but it’s not really a surprise because companies like Facebook have been doing this for years,” Shana Brindze ’19 said. “It is in their user license agreement. It is sad that that’s the world we live in, but unfortunately it’s not new or unique to Facebook at all.”

While Ruben said it is common for companies like Facebook to share users’ personal information, he said that he wants to make it clear that a similar situation could never happen to data that students provide through the school’s databases, whether through their email, the Hub or enrollment documents.

“That information is being highly and heavily protected by the school’s security,” Ruben said. “The students, and parents for that matter, should know that we don’t share your data with anyone. Not for any price.”

When reflecting on the scandal at Facebook, it is imperative to look at the repercussions both on Facebook itself and on the website’s users, Ruben said.

“The great thing about what’s happening is that it’s raised awareness for users like us, but it’s also put a magnifying glass on Facebook and other company’s policies, and they’re going to have to change those,” Ruben said. “It’s good from both levels because now everybody’s aware that they’re not as private as they thought, and these companies are going to have to back off.”