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The Murky Ethics of Data Gathering in a Post-Cambridge Analytica World

Sarah Steimer

Marketers can lead the way in a post-Cambridge Analytica world, where data collection rules are murky and consumers are creeped out

Facebook changes its policies frequently, like a child switching up the rules to a game of his own making: a sly update when it’s personally beneficial, a knee-jerk pivot when in trouble. Everyone else—the platform’s users and advertisers—is left scampering and contorting to comply.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal shed a light on the social platform’s inner workings perhaps more than any algorithm or design update prior. The Guardian a​​nd The New York Times found the data firm paid to acquire Facebook users’ personal information through an outside researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, who created a data-harvesting personality quiz app that told users (in fine print) that it was collecting the information for academic purposes—a claim Facebook did not verify and was not true. Although only 305,000 people participated in the quiz and consented to having their data harvested, their friends also had their profiles scraped, bringing the estimated number of those affected to 87 million.

Facebook rescinded the ability to obtain data from friends of consenting users without their permission in 2015, but it’s unclear if companies that engaged in this sort of data collection deleted the information they pulled before the access was denied. The old policy was part of Facebook’s open platform style, which saw CEO Mark Zuckerberg inviting developers to build their apps on the website.

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Sarah Steimer

Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.