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Facebook’s data harvesting highlights trust pitfalls

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has taken responsibility for allowing research firm Cambridge Analytica to access the data of millions of users, with the upcoming Australian inquiry into digital platforms looking to have an increasingly greater impact on the world stage. “This was a breach of trust between Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. But it was...

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has taken responsibility for allowing research firm Cambridge Analytica to access the data of millions of users, with the upcoming Australian inquiry into digital platforms looking to have an increasingly greater impact on the world stage.

“This was a breach of trust between Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. But it was also a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it. We need to fix that,” said Mr Zuckerberg in his first statement since the full extent of the data breach was revealed earlier this week.

“I started Facebook, and at the end of the day I’m responsible for what happens on our platform,”

Cambridge Analytica caused mass controversy when it was uncovered that the British-based research firm had accessed an estimated 50 million users’ data via a third party app, enabling the company to develop software to specifically target users for political and financial gain.

This data harvesting occurred in 2015, with Facebook failing to alert users of its failings until 2018, only distancing itself from Cambridge Analytica earlier this month after media inquiries into the issue.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Consumers are becoming increasingly used to digital platforms betraying their trust but for Facebook, this is the first time the social media site has tasted such betrayal at this scale.

The situation will make the recently launched Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry into digital platforms even more compelling, with the potential to have global impacts for Google and Facebook.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the incident would have a significant impact on the way the inquiry will play out.

“We’re looking at what consumers understand about the price that they’re paying to use Facebook; what data Facebook collects; how it is used and whether consumers are misled by that,” Mr Sims said in a media statement.

“We’re interested from a competition point of view about how data is used and the extent to which that impedes competitors, but I think the consumer point is now the more relevant one in terms of what has been revealed over the past week.”

It is unclear to what extent Australian consumers were affected by the breach, with Facebook not responding to NewsMediaWorks’ request for comment.

Australia’s Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner “is making inquiries with Facebook to ascertain whether any personal information of Australians was involved”.

“I will consider Facebook’s response and whether any further regulatory action is required. The Privacy Act 1988 confers a range of privacy regulatory powers which include powers to investigate an alleged interference with privacy and enforcement powers ranging from less serious to more serious regulatory action, including powers to accept an enforceable undertaking, make a determination, or apply to the court for a civil penalty order for a breach of a civil penalty provision,” Mr Pilgrim said.

Facebook quickly amps up data protection policies

The third party app which caused the initial problem called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, was first installed on the site in 2014. At this time, 300 000 people installed the software but Facebook policy at the time allowed the app to access not only the information of these users, but also each person on their friends list.

The platform introduced several reforms since then which have made the harvesting of such data on mass no longer possible, however, Facebook has acknowledged its responsibility.

“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Mr Zuckerberg said.

“The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it.”

To coincide with Mr Zuckerberg’s comments, the company announced it would be taking action to rectify consumer trust.

Facebook said it would be reviewing apps that hold large amounts of data and were implemented in 2014 to discover whether other third party developers have also violated policy, promising to tell users if this is the case.

Moving forward, Facebook will decrease the amount of data a third party can view and disable apps if a user has not accessed it within three months.

Fake news the least of the problem

Consumers are well aware of the impact of fake news, particularly in relation to the US and European elections. However, this new scandal has proven that the influence of digital platforms may be even deeper and more insidious than first thought.

Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cambridge Analytica worked with US President Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who alerted the world to the incident, also helped Cambridge Analytica obtain the data and develop the software to use it.

He recently told The Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

US Democrat Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has asked for Mr Zuckerberg to appear before the panel and detail what the company knew about the misuse of its data “to target political advertising and manipulate voters”.

The UK is also concerned about the impact the company may have had on democracy, having held two general elections and a referendum on Brexit since 2014.

Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s information commissioner said: “We are investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used.

“It’s part of our ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes which was launched to consider how political parties and campaigns, data analytics companies and social media platforms in the UK are using and analysing people’s personal information to micro-target voters.”

The British parliament is currently in the midst of its own inquiry into digital platforms, investigating the influence of fake news on elections.

UK lawmaker Damian Collins who is chairing the committee has sent a letter to Facebook’s head office, requesting Mr Zuckerberg appear before the committee and accusing the company of deliberately misleading parliament.

“The committee has repeatedly asked Facebook about how companies acquire and hold on to user data from their site, and in particular about whether data had been taken without their consent,” Mr Collins wrote.

“Your officials’ answers have consistently understated this risk, and have been misleading to the committee.

“It is now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process. There is a strong public interest test regarding user protection. Accordingly we are sure you will understand the need for a representative from right at the top of the organisation to address concerns.

“Given your commitment at the start of the New Year to “fixing” Facebook, I hope that this representative will be you.”

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