Why you should care

Because they know way too much about you.

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

I told you so, I told you so! All this Facebook drama — the icky stuff with Cambridge Analytica, the billions in lost value, the flight of the indignant users — is giving me a thrilling sense of vindication. It’s a delicious frisson. Call it schadenfacebook.

Well, I didn’t actually tell anyone anything when I ghosted Facebook last year, abandoning all my “friends” and feeling like I’d done something good for my mental health. But I didn’t need to. What I knew back then, you did too — even if you didn’t vote with your feet. Did anyone really think that someone who made tens of billions of dollars on our oversharing would have an interest in protecting our data? That reasoned discussion of serious topics and opposing viewpoints could generate ad revenue? That we, the users, were not the product that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was selling — and that millions of shareholders, none of them dumb enough to actually use the platform, were profiting from?

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, I thought when I finally located the “deactivate” button on my account. This will make me a better citizen, I realized as I re-entered my password, per the app’s demand.I’ll finally read Proust, I imagined, as the next window popped up. It featured profile pictures of my father, a couple cousins, my best friend, and it said they’d miss me. Because Facebook is so baldly manipulative, I debated writing an answer in the box that demanded a reason for my departure. One more annoying and needy “Are you sure?” and finally it was over.

Facebook has one of humanity’s most extraordinary repositories ever — of our proudest achievements and hopes, yes, as well as our most pathetic insecurities and our ugliest fears.

Except it wasn’t. Not really.

Even though I’ve barely missed Facebook these past six months, and even though none of my “friends” appear to have missed me, I must regretfully inform you of the following: I cannot imagine a world without Facebook. And that’s not for lack of trying.

Two obvious reasons are Instagram and WhatsApp, both owned by Facebook, both still growing in popularity. For now, at least, they seem more pleasant than predatory, though the ads on Instagram have lately become more annoying.

A less obvious reason? Deactivation is not deletion. As Facebook creepily reminded me when I walked out the door, all my stuff will still be there when I come back. Deleting your account is also an option, but Facebook warns that material from deleted profiles “may remain in our database.” Also, it can’t delete copies of information it already shared with third-party apps. In other words, whatever happens to its stock price, user base and privacy policies, Facebook still has my data and probably at least some of the data of anyone who’s ever used it, including the roughly one million North Americans who fled Facebook in the fourth quarter of last year.

A Facebook spokesperson tried to offer reassurance: The information it retains from deleted accounts can’t be linked to ex-users, it says, and its policies require third-party developers to be responsive. But I didn’t feel reassured.

When I consider the futility of escape, I despair: Facebook has one of humanity’s most extraordinary repositories ever — of our proudest achievements and hopes, yes, as well as our most pathetic insecurities and our ugliest fears. It knows the revealed preferences we never knew we were revealing, let alone intended to share: our searches and likes, our browsing tendencies, the stupid games we play, the frenemies we stalk.

Which is to say, I worry that Facebook has the ultimate kompromat. It’s hard to say exactly what it has on us, and even harder to say who has it. Not even Facebook’s CEO seems to know for sure: In his statement this week, Zuckerberg implied that he only recently found out that Cambridge Analytica had lied to him when it certified it had deleted improperly acquired data. I don’t know what “certified” means, but I do know this: Should the Russians ever get hold of Facebook’s extraordinary trove, no one will ever be able to work for the CIA again.

Actually, I take that back. Our own president is a shining example that some people are just immune to kompromat, even the ugliest kinds.

Not all of this is Facebook’s fault, of course. Ultimately, the data debacle is on us. We gave up our information willingly, demanding little if anything in the way of reassurance when we did. Government regulations on privacy and data have not kept up, with the weird result that I feel a lot more secure about my borrowing record at the public library, where I share physical space with strangers, than I do about my browsing record at a private company on my own computer.

The library, alas, is always underfunded and overcrowded. Facebook, though its valuation nosedived this week, is looking to lease a million more feet of office space. Maybe we’ll find our data there.


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