The True Price of a “Free” Facebook Account: Are You Willing to Pay It?

by / Thursday, 14 June 2018 / Published in Latest News

Why sign up for social media? Young or old, chances are you’ve taken a plunge of signing up to a social media account at least once. Yet, no other social media platform is quite as prolific and inviting as Facebook.

With the revelation that Cambridge Analytica was using Facebook’s user data—including but not limited to identities, networks, and “likes”—for their own financial benefit, a question arises.

How does a company—whose product you and many others use to access news, entertainment, updates, and other information—get your personal data?

Data Farming

Remember FarmVille? As an avid gamer, FarmVille interested me to no end. While I never played the game, everyone knew about it.

How could a simple, pedantic game like FarmVille become so wildly popular?

What is the true cost of a Facebook account?
Source Credit: Zynga

Let’s observe FarmVille as simple Facebook user would have. What’s not to love? It’s cute, entertaining, addictive, and free! According to CNBC:

“There are approximately 100 million people in America and the U.K. regularly playing social network games such as FarmVille and Mafia Wars … That’s nowhere close to the number of people playing on the Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Xbox 360—but for an industry that’s less than three years old, it’s impressive.”

Who was playing FarmVille, exactly? As stated in the article above, the average age of a social gamer at this point in time was 48. Isn’t that odd, considering both social media and gaming culture are centered around a young audience? For comparison, users under the age of 21 only made up 6 percent of the total amount of users playing games on social media.

That was just one of the quirks regarding FarmVille. In 2011, the methods in which FarmVille made money for Facebook were reported: payment processing fees (for assets like in-game currency), ad displays (throughout multiple in-game pages), and direct advertising. Prior to FarmVille, most of Facebook’s revenue came directly from ad revenue (98 percent in 2009, 95 percent in 2010).

Afterward, Facebook’s bottom line was dependent on the game. According to Forbes:

“Additionally, Zynga’s apps generate a significant number of pages on which we display ads from other advertisers. If the use of Zynga games on our Platform declines, if Zynga launches games on or migrates games to competing platforms, or if we fail to maintain good relations with Zynga, we may lose Zynga as a significant Platform developer and our financial results may be adversely affected.”

The above quote was released after Zynga integrated Facebook’s Payments into the app, which retained 30 percent of user purchases in Zynga games on the Facebook Platform.

Considering how much money Zynga was making, and how important they were, why accept a major pay cut to use an unnecessary payment application? Looking back, FarmVille seems less like a runaway hit and more like a trial run regarding app popularity. After all, at the time, it was nearly unavoidable.

Play to Pay

As told by Sandy Parakilas, former platform operations manager at Facebook, “one of the main ways to get developers interested in building apps was through offering them access to [their] data.”

In 2011, despite Facebook’s Payment’s cut and a drop in users—from 83 to 39 million active users, approximately half of its user base—Zynga’s FarmVille made more money in its first quarter than it ever had before.

The importance of this move cannot be overshadowed, because it exhibits Facebook’s handling of financial and personal information regarding third-party applications at a point where third-party applications were becoming integral to Facebook. From FarmVille came Mafia Wars, Words with Friends, and so on.

Still think FarmVille was harmless? In 2011, Facebook was charged by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), stating they decieved consumers by failing to keep privacy promises. According to the FTC:

“Facebook represented that third-party apps that users’ installed would have access only to user information that they needed to operate. In fact, the apps could access nearly all of users’ personal data—data the apps didn’t need.”

I would suggest the reader head to the official FTC website to view the charges filed, all of which ring eerily true to the issues faced by Facebook today. Every charge involves, in some capacity, the sharing of data via third-party outlets.

From Quizzes to Quislings

Ever taken a Facebook quiz? You’ve probably seen one, at least. They do seem cool, right? Answer a few questions and you’ll readily find out whether you’re more Batman than Superman, more Virgo than Capricorn, and so on.

Unfortunately, it’s been revealed that these quizzes mine data from your Facebook profile as well. A popular example of this type of data harvesting occurred in 2015 with a third-party company called They created a smash hit—similar to FarmVille in terms of user popularity—that created a visual graph of your most used words on Facebook. In a matter of days, the quiz app was shared 16 million times. It was even advertised on notable tech websites like The Independent.

What is the true cost of a Facebook account?
Source Credit: Whittier College

What actually happened when a user took the quiz? They shared, including other information, the following: your name, picture, age, sex, birthday, friend list, text posted on timeline, hometown, like pages, and IP address. Vonvon also mentioned in their privacy policy:

“We do not share your Personal Information with third parties unless we have received your permission to do so, or given you notice thereof (such as by telling you about it in this Privacy Policy).”

To be clear, Vonvon has since stated that no data is saved or stored by the company. The app only accessed this information, and projected the results within the user’s browser. Nevertheless, the access part is key.

Afterward, the Facebook quiz industry grew and grew. Quizzes about everything from Disney to Shakespeare characters now occupy many corners of the Facebook landscape.

This caught the attention of the BBB (Better Business Bureau) which released an article titled “Scam Alert: That Facebook Quiz Might Be a Big Data Company Mining Your Personal Information” in March of 2018:

“We always knew someone was trying to trick us with social media quizzes, because they are free” says BBB’s chief security officer Bill Fanelli, CISSP. “If there is no charge, then the value is the data they can collect. We also knew that it was for a use we probably would not like, because they went to such great lengths to hide their purpose. Now we know we were right on both counts.”

Over time, the theory that Facebook uses these very popular quizzes to extract user data becomes more and more credible.

It was even revealed as recently as last month by Cambridge Analytica employee Brittney Kaiser that the specific purpose of some of these Facebook quizzes was to extract data from users rather than being a fun and jocular pastime. Reported by TechCrunch:

“What you’re saying is … that actually the purpose of the survey was to gather [Facebook] information and by completing it with your Facebook login as well then CA would also get access to your data on Facebook too?”.”I believe that was the point of the quizzes in the first place, yes,” responded Kaiser.

Facebook Login (Your Name, Date, and Data Please)

Don’t you just love Facebook logins? Why deal with a website’s possibly long and boring registration when you can fill all your information with a mouse click? This was the initial draw of Facebook’s third-party login feature.

Facebook Login is the perfect combination of programming, design, advertisement, and ease of use, which is why it was repeated by so many other social media platforms.

What is the true cost of a Facebook account?

Surely this innovative and useful piece of programming technology couldn’t be misused? Turns out, it was thoroughly misused.

The Facebook Virus

One prime example of third-party login misuse involved developers not only nabbing your information, but your friend’s information as well. A Cambridge University professor named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan created a third-party Facebook personality quiz called This Is Your Digital Life.

While only around 270,000 Facebook users took the quiz, with which they were paid using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk function, the application was also able to access their friend’s data too.

You may recall seeing a popup after logging into Facebook a while ago.

What is the true cost of a Facebook account?

From the relatively few users that took the quiz, Dr. Kogan was able to access the data of approximately 50 million Facebook users. For a comparison, that’s larger than the population of both New York City, New York and the whole of California. That’s locations, interests, check-ins, photos, status updates, and likes, taken from you via a friend.

I remembered something similar happening in Myspace as well. In 2005, hacker Samy Kamkar was poking around Myspace looking for exploits when he found a crucial one. It allowed Kamkar to continually add friend onto his friend’s list via other friends. Since the virus spread from profile to profile, it compounded the amount of friends Samy would receive from a one person. After less than 24 hours, Samy went from a few friends to over a million.

One problem: when Samy’s Myspace page was taken down, so was everyone else’s. Soon after, Myspace crashed. This event occurred at a point in time wherein Myspace was being used by more people than the Google search engine.

Mass connection, it can be argued, was what this whole internet thing was about. When it comes to social media giants, however, that means we’re also massively susceptible to viruses of this sort. Most data breeches are mass breeches for a reason; user data is often stored in huge data sets pertaining to a particular class or id.

That’s part of why online accounts can function in the first place. If Kogan’s app goes to show anything, it’s that social media profile don’t create a network of people. How many Facebook friends do you speak to personally, after all? It’s a network of data, gladly provided by you and me.

Love Those Likes

Facebook loves it when you like things, and if you use Facebook, so do you. Why not? It’s a form of expression, after all.

Exactly. The function of a Facebook like is simple and harmless, but the potential repercussions can be insanely lucrative. In 2013, psychology researcher used “easily accessible digital records of behavior, Facebook Likes” to accurately predict otherwise private personal attributes. According to The Guardian:

“Just a few apparently random ‘likes’ could form the basis for disturbingly complex character assessments. When users liked ‘curly fries’ and Sephora cosmetics, this was said to give clues to intelligence; Hello Kitty likes indicated political views; ‘Being confused after waking up from naps’ was linked to sexuality. These were just some of the unexpected but consistent correlations noted in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in 2013. ‘Few users were associated with “likes” explicitly revealing their attributes. For example, less than 5% of users labelled as gay were connected with explicitly gay groups, such as No H8 Campaign,’ the peer-reviewed research found.”

The statement above sounds like a marketer’s dream. With a few data sets, you’d be able to coordinate ad efforts quickly and easily. Expression, in this instance, can be flipped for a profit. Unfortunately for us, other companies saw the advantage as well.

In 2014, Cambridge Analytica contacted the same Dr. Kogan and managed to secure millions of users’ profile data. After Kogan’s plot was revealed, CA was supposed to destroy the data accumulated. They didn’t. According to The Guardian:

“A former Cambridge Analytica executive conceded that Facebook could easily have insisted the company delete models it had built from Kogan’s data, and speculated that Facebook was aware of the enormous profits it was making from political advertising from clients such as Cambridge Analytica … But let’s be frank. Given where we were in the primary cycle, we were responsible for spending millions of dollars on their platform.”

Dr. Kogan responded:

“The events of the past week have been a total shell-shock, and my view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. We were assured by Cambridge Analytica that everything was perfectly legal and within the terms of service.”

The Faustbook Bargain

Whenever you sign up for an online account, you are putting yourself at risk. While users aren’t necessarily in any danger when they sign up for a social media platform, consider what you gain from the content you provide and data you expose. There are over two billion Facebook users, over one and a half billion of which are considered daily active users. Facebook is, for many of its users, a daily and integral part a significant population’s everyday life.

What is the true cost of a Facebook account?

A Faustian bargain as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Faustian bargain, a pact whereby a person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance, such as personal values or the soul, for some worldly or material benefit, such as knowledge, power, or riches.”

In the case with Facebook, personal values are almost exactly that. Facebook took the comprehensive values that make you, you, for their own benefit, and has done so for several years and across several cases. What did the average Facebook user receive in return? A quiz here, a login there, a bit of news, and a conversation. That’s how Facebook was able to take, analyze, share, and profit from your daily online actions.

So what should you do with your Facebook profile? While it’s easy to recommend deleting your Facebook account, that’s easier said than done. There are, nevertheless, some ways to limit the backlash.

  1. Strictly limit your use of third-party apps. While they’re found on Facebook, third-party apps are not exactly official. Avoid any third-party trends as well, as greedy developers pounce on trending opportunities.
  2. Review your Privacy settings on Facebook. These settings are continually updated, and unfortunately abused, so don’t leave yourself open.
  3. Take a day to download your Facebook data. While it’s easy to assume the data Facebook collects from you, you may be surprised by how comprehensive the data is.
  4. You are not posting your thoughts on Facebook, per se. More accurately, you are broadcasting yourself—in text, picture, speech, or video format—to a broad audience. Post, and like, accordingly.

These tips won’t fix all the problems you may have had, or will have, with Facebook’s data sharing. They will, however, prep you for future schemes you may encounter.

Want your face off of Facebook? Try these niche social media platforms!

Read the full article: The True Price of a “Free” Facebook Account: Are You Willing to Pay It?


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