To be very clear, Facebook is well deserving of the mammoth backlash the company is experiencing in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Especially since Facebook’s most substantive reaction to date has been to threaten lawsuits against news outlets for telling the truth. And, like most of these stories, it’s guaranteed that the core story is only destined to get worse as more and more is revealed about the way such casual handling of private consumer data is pretty much routine not only at Facebook, but everywhere.
Despite the fact that consumer privacy apathy is now bone-grafted to the DNA of global corporate culture (usually only bubbling up after a scandal breaks), the outrage over Facebook’s lack of transparency has been monumental.
Verizon-owned Techcrunch, for example, this week went so far as to call Facebook a “cancer,” demanding that readers worried about privacy abuses delete their Facebook accounts. The #Deletefacebook hashtag has been trending, and countless news outlets have subsequently provided wall to wall coverage on how to delete your Facebook account (or at least delete older Facebook posts and shore up app-sharing permissions) in order to protect your privacy.
And while this outrage is well-intentioned and certainly justified, a lot of it seems a touch naive. Many of the folks that are busy deleting their Facebook accounts are simultaneously still perfectly happy to use their stock smartphone on a major carrier network, seemingly oblivious to the ugly reality that the telecom sector has been engaged, routinely, in far worse privacy violations for the better part of the last two decades. Behavior that has just as routinely failed to see anywhere near the same level of outrage by consumers, analysts or the tech press.
You’ll recall that a decade ago, ISPs were caught routinely hoovering up clickstream data (data on each and every website you visit), then selling it to whoever was willing to pony up the cash. When ISPs were asked to share more detail on this data collection by the few outlets that thought this might not be a good idea, ISP executives would routinely play dumb and mute (they still do). And collectively, the lion’s share of the press and public generally seemed OK with that.
From there, we learned that AT&T and Verizon were effectively bone grafted to the nation’s intelligence apparatus, and both companies were caught routinely helping Uncle Sam not only spy on Americans without warrants, but providing advice on how best to tap dance around wiretap and privacy laws. When they were caught spying on Americans in violation of the law, these companies’ lobbyists simply convinced the government to change the law to make this behavior retroactively legal. Again, I can remember a lot of tech news outlets justifying this apathy for national security reasons.
Once these giant telecom operators were fused to the government’s data gathering operations, holding trusted surveillance partners accountable for privacy abuses (or much of anything else) increasingly became an afterthought. Even as technologies like deep packet inspection made it possible to track and sell consumer online behavior down to the millisecond. As the government routinely signaled that privacy abuses wouldn’t be seriously policed, large ISPs quickly became more emboldened when it came to even more “creative” privacy abuses.