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The Briefing: Facebook is not your friend

WASHINGTON – A shady bunch of computer geeks used Facebook to invade the privacy of tens of millions of Americans, maybe including you.

It's hard to conclude otherwise after the astounding revelations over the weekend that a research firm hired by Donald Trump's 2016 campaign mined the data of 50 million or more Facebook users for political purposes – like getting their man elected president.

This story about the British firm Cambridge Analytica is mind-numbingly complex. Plus it's awash in the partisan politics of our time, which means that if you're a Republican, you might dismiss the whole thing as yet another media frenzy aimed at making Trump look bad.

For your own good, please don't do that. In fact, it's probably most useful if don't view this as a political story at all. View it as a personal story, and view this Briefing as news you can use, the gist of which is: Rethink how you use Facebook and revisit your privacy settings.

To understand why you should do that, a primer is in order.

Back in 2014, a U.K.-based researcher named Alexandr Kogan created an app designed to make you click. Called "Thisismydigitallife," it was one of those silly personality tests you see popping up on your screen from time to time. It asked you all sorts of questions that supposedly determine what kind of person you really are.

It sounds harmless, right? It could be, but for two facts.

While Kogan said he was collecting the data from that quiz for academic research purposes, instead he sold it to Cambridge Analytica, a fledgling political outfit run by Brits but funded by Robert Mercer, a phenomenally wealthy Republican hedge fund investor, and his daughter Rebekah.

Cambridge Analytica's goal? To exploit the answers from the quiz – and everything on your Facebook profile – for right-wing political purposes.

“They want to fight a culture war in America,” Christopher Wylie, who helped found the company, told the New York Times. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”

So the data was collected under false pretenses – and just as bad, the data was collected from people who had no idea it was happening, people who never gave anyone permission to have it.

If you took that personality quiz, Cambridge Analytica ended up not only with your personal data from Facebook – what you "like" and so on – but also the data of all your friends.

With it, the geeks at Cambridge Analytica were able to build "psychographic profiles" of tens of millions of voters, often including where they lived. Eventually those profiles would be used to target likely Trump voters and encourage them to vote.

Let's not even think, for the time being, of the political ramifications of all of this, which have created a firestorm on both sides of the Atlantic and prompted a Federal Trade Commission investigation into Facebook's practices.

Think of the personal ramifications.

If you took that "Thisismydigitallife" quiz, you unlocked whatever life history you store on Facebook to strangers based in the U.K. bent on shaping American politics.

Worse yet, you unlocked your friends' life histories, too.

You surely didn't mean to do that. But you did. And it probably wasn't the only time.

How many times have you taken a Facebook quiz and been met with a statement like: "Thisismydigitallife will obtain access to your list of friends"? Personally, I can recall taking a bunch of them. Reading all about Cambridge Analytica, I've come to regret it.

This sort of thing isn't supposed to be happening anymore, given that Facebook changed its policies in 2015 to bar those outside apps from accessing your list of friends.

But that doesn't mean all those quizzes – and all those apps that want you to sign in through Facebook – are there for your own good.

They're not. They're there to make money off your personal information, to make it easier for advertisers to sell you what they think you might want to buy, privacy be damned. That's how Facebook makes money, and that's what it's there for, to make money.

That being the case, do yourself a favor and double-check your privacy settings. Here's a handy guide for doing so – and for limiting the amount of data Facebook can collect from you.

Think twice, too, before you link your Facebook account to any app that might want to cash in on your personal data. And never, ever again take any of those silly quizzes – because if the Cambridge Analytica fiasco proves anything, it proves that these quizzes offer much more risk than reward.

Don't get me wrong. I love Facebook. It put me back in touch with hundreds of people from every corner of my life, a fact that I am thankful for every day.

But please understand: Facebook is not your friend. It's a business – and your privacy is its currency.

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