Facebook confronts loss of trust


Associated Press

CHICAGO

It’s a scandal of privacy, politics and an essential ingredient of business success – public trust.

Facebook is confronting a costly, embarrassing public relations debacle after revelations that Cambridge Analytica may have misused data from some 50 million users to try to influence elections. Among its marquee clients: President Donald Trump’s general election campaign.

Now a company known as much for reminders of a long-lost friend’s birthday and documentation of acquaintances’ every whim is grappling with outrage – and the possible loss of confidence – from users around the globe who have made the social media site a part of their daily routine.

“I trust somebody until they give me a reason not to trust them,” said Joseph Holt, who teaches business ethics at the University of Notre Dame. “And Facebook has increasingly given me reasons not to trust them.”

Losing that would be a disaster, not just for Facebook, but for any Silicon Valley company that relies on users to open up their private lives.

The amount of trust placed in technology has soared. Cars sync with cellphones. Refrigerators know when there’s no more milk and reorder it. Virtual assistants field answers to nearly any inane question.

And with each turn of the steering wheel, sip of milk or request for dinner reservations, a trail of digital crumbs is left for companies to collect, analyze and profit from.

The public has largely been willing to accept the trade-off, knowing in exchange for giving up some data, Netflix will offer spot-on show suggestions, Amazon will prompt a diaper order and Google will figure out what to search before a user finishes typing it.

Not everyone understands the darker side of data brokers in an always-connected society.

Every time a person shops online or at a store, loyalty cards linked to phone numbers or email addresses can be linked to other databases that may have location data, home addresses and more. Voting records, job history, credit scores (remember the Equifax hack?) are constantly mixed, matched and traded by companies in ways regulators haven’t caught up with.

While Facebook let slip data profiles on millions of people, “it’s much more than that,” says James Grimmelmann, a professor at Cornell Law School. “Trying to pin down any one breach as being the source of all the privacy harms out there is futile.”

For Facebook, whose power and value are built on being so ever-present in people’s lives, the impact has been immediate – its share price is down nearly 14 percent since the scandal broke March 16.

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