Facebook’s global data breach unsurprising, but calls for Zuckerberg’s head puzzling

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Buyer beware, Facebook postings will be mined by less than honest marketers. And that includes politicians.


Published first on Monday, March 26, 2018 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Facebook’s global data breach is anything but surprising.

What is surprising is the sturm and drang from all corners demanding Mark Zuckerberg’s head.

Surprise: companies are mining data to sell you stuff, even get inside your head to influence your voting patterns.

Hello. Forget about Facebook. One just has to scroll the internet to be subject to the voracious marketing appetite of the euphemistically-called cookies. Looking up a recipe? You will be flooded with information on what gadget you need to create the perfect soufflé.

Checking on home décor? Expect to receive an onslaught of unwanted material on the multiple shapes and sizes of an exotic online berber rug. None of these info dumps are breaches of any code of confidentiality. To get access to the treasure trove of information available on the net, consumers have already signed away any right to privacy.

Apps are often made available at no cost, as long as we agree to subject ourselves to an onslaught of advertising in return for embedding a free scanner or a language app into our phone.

Our exact location is pinpointed in most apps, once we grant permission for Google maps or other devices to supplement our limited navigational skills.

I could go on. The bottom line is that in the past quarter century, the post-information world is full of examples where even the notion of maintaining privacy or shielding ourselves from being identified is laughable.

The raison d’etre of Facebook is to see and be seen. Kids today can even download personalized apps to drive more traffic to their Instagram accounts, where 14-year-olds pose in provocative ways to attract attention and followers.

Facebook allows you up to 5,000 “friends” before you can become a marketing machine of your own.

So as the world is marketing via the internet, politicians will obviously be doing the same thing.

And no congressional or parliamentary committee is going to be able to police the dump of information on the internet that can and will find itself in the hands of unscrupulous people.

Politicians are in the business of persuasion. They too are selling an ersatz product, themselves, and their political beliefs.

And the easiest way to recruit followers these days is via the internet.

Facebook posts are a window into the mind of every voter. They usually indicate sexual orientation, family, religious status, and attitudinal bent.

So if you want to stop your data from being mined, you have to stop offering up your life story to strangers with the intent of increasing your “likes.”

And if you want to keep your Facebook profile out of the hands of Donald Trump, you have to stop releasing personal information to apps and sites that are set up specifically for the purpose of mining your consumer habits to sell you things.

Back in the nineties, politicians were just getting started in the world of social media.

Now-deceased Winnipeg Member of Parliament Reg Alcock set up the House of Commons first eblast by enlisting thousands of constituents to sign up for regular information updates. He even offered seminars to help colleagues join the social media phenomenon.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both proved very adept at utilizing social media to grow their support base and to enlist volunteers, including many first-time voters. They turned political skeptics into believers. Both were lauded for their savvy in being able to entice new voters to the polls and the key was creative use of social media.

Canada witnessed the first criminal cases involving robo-dialler internet technology that deliberately directed opponents to the wrong poll on voting day.

Tom Flanagan, key adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper in the early years, credits “direct voter contact” as the main reason Conservatives increased their seat count by 21 in the 2004 election.

Political machines, whether at the local, provincial, or national level, depend on massive information tools to pinpoint voter intention. They then focus on getting their own supporters to vote and discouraging opponents from doing the same.

The last American federal election witnessed targeted voter suppression based on race. Keeping blacks home became part of the Republican arsenal for success. Given that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote handily, but lost the election because of an electoral college loss of about 80,000 votes, you can understand why data mining is part of any political campaign.

Buyer beware: Facebook postings will be mined by less than honest marketers. And that includes politicians.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.