LETTER: From Facebook friends to data-mining fins

To the editor:

I have never had a Facebook account. No Facebook “friends,” nor have I ever been “friended.” Sometimes I think I am among the last half-dozen Americans who can say that. It has, simply, never appealed to me.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” to ape an old “Seinfeld” plot line.

Of course, I have plenty of family, friends, and acquaintances who enjoy Facebook. Yes, I have learned to be patient and control my “inner grump” as conversations are sometimes diverted by their furtive glimpses at cute babies, laughing-cat videos, or sudden posts from casual friends who are summiting Mount Everest — or similar adventures — as we spoke.

So it was with an outsider’s interest that I read of Facebook’s latest woes related to misuse of users’ personal data. Around 2014, some 270,000 FB users answered a survey of their opinions and habits from a Cambridge University professor. That may have been innocent enough, but FB rules at the time allowed personal data of folks “friended” by those users to be collected as well. About 50 million FB “friends” and users were affected.

Facebook willingly allowed the data collection, but claims it was mislead about the purposes. The information, in turn, was sold to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm employed by the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. Since the news broke in mid-March, FB’s stock has plummeted some 14 percent, with calls for official investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, and more than a few users considering deleting their FB accounts.

While a comeuppance may be due, the company has become too immersed in American and global business, and in the lives of citizens, for anyone to experience much schadenfreude at its misfortunes. Too many folks in need have found assistance, connected with lost friends, or prospered in business, thanks to FB.

With its growth, though, comes greater responsibility in conserving clients’ data. Whether or not a FB user, moreover, citizens should take a lesson about their own personal information in our society. Think of yourself — and your family — as if occupying a small craft at sea. If you chum the waters with data, those fins you see coming probably won’t be “friends.”

Douglas Smith