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'Cow Clicker' Developer: Facebook's Response To Complaints Is Too Late

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The revelations that Cambridge Analytica paid for data scraped from millions of users surprised many people - not our next guest. In 2010, Ian Bogost created an app called "Cow Clicker" - you clicked on cows. The app harvested troves of data about users. Mr. Bogost is a contributing editor at The Atlantic - still has that information today. Thanks so much for being with us.

IAN BOGOST: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So why would you click a cow?

BOGOST: (Laughter) It's surprisingly delightful to click on a picture of a cute cow. But the impetus for the app were these social games that were very popular around this time - 2009, 2010 on Facebook - games like like "FarmVille." And that's really where the cow idea came from.

SIMON: And what kind of data did you get?

BOGOST: So back in this era, Facebook handed off a lot of data by default, whether or not I asked for it or whether or not I made use of it. So that data - the data that Facebook provided to every app at this time included users' names, their profile pictures, their genders, a list of their friends and anything else that they might have shared publicly. And because I needed to store some of it to make the game work, to make it operate I still have all of those unique Facebook ID's for almost 200,000 users without the intention of, you know, selling it to data brokers but rather just because it came along the wire.

SIMON: But could you sell it now?

BOGOST: It's a great question. One of the things that I speculated about in the article is whether all of this press over the Cambridge Analytica Facebook controversy might be sending developers of old apps that maybe are even defunct back to their databases and kind of asking, well, what data do I have, and what might it be worth? And this idea that, you know, Facebook apps handed over enormous piles of data to millions of apps that were active for years and years. That's something that's not completely captured in the Cambridge Analytica story.

SIMON: Doesn't Facebook say, look - there are privacy policies? People get a chance to choose.

BOGOST: Facebook tells you that they have provided notice to their application developers and then to the users as they kind of match make them with these applications. And that sounds great. And to some extent, it's true if you read the privacy policies, for one, but then also if you understand when you're moving from Facebook's privacy terms into the privacy policy terms of some third party. I think that's really unclear. It was unclear in 2010 when I was making "Cow Clicker." And it's still somewhat unclear today. So notice itself may not be enough to reasonably expect users to make informed decisions about how their information is being used.

SIMON: What do you make of what Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg said this week in response to complaints about Facebook?

BOGOST: These statements came very late. And they were very vague. One of the statements that Zuckerberg made and a promise that Facebook has agreed to perform as a result of it is to, you know - to look at what data got out and to audit companies who may have used that data improperly. The fact is, as I've shown, with this silly example of "Cow Clicker," it's too late. The data is out, and you kind of can't put the genie back in the bottle anymore.

SIMON: Ian Bogost is a contributing editor at "The Atlantic." Thanks very much for being with us.

BOGOST: Thanks so much.

SIMON: And we know that NPR is also a Facebook app developer. Our listeners use their Facebook logins to access NPR One and our website. NPR can then see information that users choose to provide in their public profile - may include names, email addresses, gender, age range. And some of that information is stored in NPR's databases. Like several other media companies, NPR received payment from Facebook to experiment with Facebook Live video content in 2016. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.