This morning Facebook announced a proposed solution to the user ID problem that the Wall Street Journal “exposed” over the weekend. While sufficient if the sharing of user data was truly inadvertent, we aren’t quite sure that this is going to truly prevent the sharing of user data.
After any article comes out which exposes wrong doing by companies who are in the business of buying and selling data, the response is most frequently finger pointing, denial, or communicating a misunderstanding. While I’m not suggesting that Zynga and other app developers intentionally shared data with Rapleaf, it’s not exactly a secret that the company is willing to buy user data in order to create more robust dossiers of every individual on the internet.
So far the most accurate portrayal of the situation is the one provided by Om Malik, who suggests that it isn’t quite clear how Rapleaf’s data is obtained despite the fact that they have profiles on a large percent of internet users. This lack of transparency, in regards to how data is collected, is what puts the company in an ethical grey area. While the press is supposed to assume that what the company tells us is true, there’s no direct way of validating the company’s claims.
In essence Rapleaf, and other data aggregators, will do anything to get data aside from physically hacking in to systems to collect it. This sort of issue is nothing new. Credit card companies, credit reporting agencies, and others have been involved in questionable behavior for decades. Despite their questionable behavior, it doesn’t justify the continued black box businesses of consumer data sharing.
Today at Facebook’s Headquarters, John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins suggested that his company invests in companies whose CEOs end up making the decision about what to do with user data, however he said that he believes users should have the right to own their data and control access of that data. Under the existing system, the only way to have full control of your personal data is to not use the internet or credit cards, which means we’re pretty far away from the day where consumers have full control of their information.
While I doubt we’ll ever get to a place where consumers have control of their data, the business of selling personal data doesn’t feel right. Given there is no clear line on ethical behavior, I’m gonna go with my gut on this one and say that many of these companies are doing something that simply isn’t right. If you’re looking for an investigative piece on Rapleaf, you’ll have to wait for the Wall Street Journal (which is supposed to have resources to do real investigative journalism) to fire off some sensational article which barely grazes the surface of the problem at hand.
In the meantime, all the parties, including Facebook, are playing their part and taking actions that enable them to point and say, “see … we’re doing something that will help protect the users!” If you want to read the complete technical specification behind Facebook’s proposed solution, you can find it here. The solution however still doesn’t prevent developers from intentionally sharing user data, whether or not it’s technically against Facebook’s policy. For a space where “everybody is protecting the user” there sure is a lack of transparency.
Check out this awesome piece by Om Malik highlighting how Rapleaf works.