Opinion: Silicon Valley is moving too fast for its own good


Tyler Skolnick

Tyler Skolnick, Staff member

It’s time to start using and creating social media and new technology in a more mindful way.

The progress made in Silicon Valley over the past decade has caused a dangerous decline in our privacy standards. Tech companies need to take accountability, and users must tread lightly when giving up personal information online. 

These companies swamp us with lengthy terms & agreement contracts knowing that we won’t take the time to read them. But by clicking that “agree” button, we are surrendering our right to privacy.

This is particularly scary because it is increasingly evident that our we are the product. That is, our personal data is the product, not the platform itself. 

Social media companies rely on an advertisement model to turn a profit. Both the information we input, as well as what we search, like or click on, is stored by companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. They sell this data to advertisers, who in turn make hyper personalized ads just for us.

Similarly, they can track our whereabouts.

If you have a Google-equipped device, it’s highly likely that you’ve allowed them to maintain a location timeline of your device. When I first discovered this, it was a disorienting moment in my relationship with Google.

My nap on the beach at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in 2014? Yes, that’s documented, I was on the beach for 53 minutes. The night I stumbled back into my dorm room from a Halloween Party in 2015? Yes, that time stamp exists, in all its glory.

This doesn’t scratch the surface of all the data that Google and Facebook collects. If you want to see for yourself, you can download a file of your archived personal data. Facebook provides this option with a link at the bottom of the general settings page. Google offers it at “google.com/takeout” with the words “Your account, your data,” displayed unironically at the top of the screen.

Personal data has become the cost one pays to participate in the social media ecosystem.

The amount of privacy we sacrifice has increased at an alarming rate. By doing so, we leave ourselves open to manipulation. We have to draw the line somewhere, and take control of the technological revolution we’re swept up in.

In the past month, Facebook’s more relaxed policies on personal data access have gotten the company in a lot of trouble, rightly so. Data firm Cambridge Analytica was discovered to have broken Facebook’s policy on data collection.

Cambridge Analytica used data on Facebook likes to build complex personality profiles to be sold to political campaigns for use in creating personalized political ads. 

The algorithm they developed was eerily accurate. With an average of 68 likes it could predict skin color and sexual orientation with 95 percent and 85 percent accuracy, respectively. With 150 Facebook likes, the program could know your personality better than your family.

Cambridge Analytica’s collection of data was epidemic. If just one of your Facebook friends was affected, your data was collected as well.

Facebook released a statement on April 4th that the number of users who had their data improperly and involuntarily shared with Cambridge Analytica has reached, “up to 87 million people — mostly in the US.”

We’ve opened ourselves up to this type of manipulation, our willingness to hand over personal data ushers in opportunities for exploitation.

Campaigns can push targeted posts and ads towards populations they’d like to affect. With the scale that these ads reach, people’s perception about the world outside of social media are being molded by this propaganda.

How much of the content I come across on social media has been targeted and pushed in my direction? Are the issues I spend my day thinking about a product of my own curiosity or the algorithms and companies that lobby for my attention?

To me, these questions go beyond Zuckerberg and Facebook. This is about how fast the online world is changing. It’s about the decisions we make online and the real changes they can have on humans in the real world.

The exponential rate of growth in Silicon Valley is too fast for its own good. The benefits of social media are pushed to the front of the conversation. The pitfalls are not brought into the public eye until it is too far to turn back.

The dismantling of the relationship between profit and user data is the next challenge in making these platforms into the benevolent entities we need them to be.

Users and creators alike must take a closer look at the social realms that we pour our attention into, reclaim our privacy and align algorithms with values that benefit society.