Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, has pinned the blame on Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) and other social media companies for harvesting data, from their user’s profile, that went askew.
Businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as "surveillance companies." Their rebranding as "social media" is the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) March 17, 2018
Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential elections, violated its Terms Of Service by exploiting personal information of some 50 million Facebook users. Unsurprisingly, Facebook knew this for two years but failed to act. On Friday, the social media giant suspended Cambridge Analytica and Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) as it accused the analytics firm of not deleting the data it had inappropriately harvested from millions of Facebook users.
This is one of the social media giant’s biggest ever data breaches, which was used to predict and manipulate choices in the elections.
Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who worked with Cambridge Analytica, revealed to 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.”
He described the company’s work as a “grossly unethical experiment“.
Facebook confirmed that the data was obtained from an app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife‘ built by University of Cambridge psychology professor Dr Aleksandr Kogan through his company Global Science Research (GSR) in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica. The app accessed information, taken without proper authorization, from hundreds of thousands of users and also their friends. Facebook said that Kogan accessed and then passed on this information to SCL/Cambridge Analytica. Upon discovering the misuse of the user information, Facebook removed the app and asked for the information to be destroyed in 2016. Yet, it failed to follow up to confirm that the data had been deleted.
Although Facebook has denied any breach in their system, Carole Cadwalladr (a Guardian reporter) said, “Facebook has just turned around and blamed a third party“. She told that despite Facebook’s denial this was a clear case of the data breach.
On the very next day of suspension, Cambridge Analytica denied any wrongdoings and said in a statement that the firm fully complies with Facebook’s terms of service.
“Facebook makes their money by exploiting and selling intimate details about the private lives of millions, far beyond the scant details you voluntarily post,” Snowden had said earlier. “They are not victims. They are accomplices.”
Moreover, Special counsel Robert Mueller received documents from Facebook pertaining to the role that Russia played in the 2016 presidential elections. The findings revealed that political ads from U.S elections worth $100,000 were purchased between June 2015 and May 2017 by a Russian ‘troll farm’ called the Internet Research Agency. Approximately 3,000 ads and 470 fake accounts and pages were reported. This was allegedly done to mislead voters and sway the voter opinions.
Facebook’s advertisement business went on par with Facebook for Politics, where representatives can run political ad campaigns and reach out to their citizens directly.
Facebook has already taken heat for being slow in noticing and reacting to harmful content. The company avoiding the bombarding interrogations did manage to say that they have significantly improvised in the ability to ‘detect and prevent violations’ by app developers.
The ensuing uproar has highlighted Facebook’s struggle to anticipate negative consequences of its lack of oversight – in some cases reacting only after the matter has gone sideways.
How Facebook averts this situation is yet to be seen.
[UPDATE]: After five days, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has finally broken his silence on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He chose his own social media platform – Facebook – to apologise to its all users and to announce three big changes the company will do to secure the platform.
I want to share an update on the Cambridge Analytica situation — including the steps we’ve already taken and our next steps to address this important issue.
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. 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.
Here’s a timeline of the events:
In 2007, we launched the Facebook Platform with the vision that more apps should be social. Your calendar should be able to show your friends’ birthdays, your maps should show where your friends live, and your address book should show their pictures. To do this, we enabled people to log into apps and share who their friends were and some information about them.
In 2013, a Cambridge University researcher named Aleksandr Kogan created a personality quiz app. It was installed by around 300,000 people who shared their data as well as some of their friends’ data. Given the way our platform worked at the time this meant Kogan was able to access tens of millions of their friends’ data.
In 2014, to prevent abusive apps, we announced that we were changing the entire platform to dramatically limit the data apps could access. Most importantly, apps like Kogan’s could no longer ask for data about a person’s friends unless their friends had also authorized the app. We also required developers to get approval from us before they could request any sensitive data from people. These actions would prevent any app like Kogan’s from being able to access so much data today.
In 2015, we learned from journalists at The Guardian that Kogan had shared data from his app with Cambridge Analytica. It is against our policies for developers to share data without people’s consent, so we immediately banned Kogan’s app from our platform, and demanded that Kogan and Cambridge Analytica formally certify that they had deleted all improperly acquired data. They provided these certifications.
Last week, we learned from The Guardian, The New York Times and Channel 4 that Cambridge Analytica may not have deleted the data as they had certified. We immediately banned them from using any of our services. Cambridge Analytica claims they have already deleted the data and has agreed to a forensic audit by a firm we hired to confirm this. We’re also working with regulators as they investigate what happened.
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.
In this case, we already took the most important steps a few years ago in 2014 to prevent bad actors from accessing people’s information in this way. But there’s more we need to do and I’ll outline those steps here:
First, we will investigate all apps that had access to large amounts of information before we changed our platform to dramatically reduce data access in 2014, and we will conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity. We will ban any developer from our platform that does not agree to a thorough audit. And if we find developers that misused personally identifiable information, we will ban them and tell everyone affected by those apps. That includes people whose data Kogan misused here as well.
Second, we will restrict developers’ data access even further to prevent other kinds of abuse. For example, we will remove developers’ access to your data if you haven’t used their app in 3 months. We will reduce the data you give an app when you sign in — to only your name, profile photo, and email address. We’ll require developers to not only get approval but also sign a contract in order to ask anyone for access to their posts or other private data. And we’ll have more changes to share in the next few days.
Third, we want to make sure you understand which apps you’ve allowed to access your data. In the next month, we will show everyone a tool at the top of your News Feed with the apps you’ve used and an easy way to revoke those apps’ permissions to your data. We already have a tool to do this in your privacy settings, and now we will put this tool at the top of your News Feed to make sure everyone sees it.
Beyond the steps we had already taken in 2014, I believe these are the next steps we must take to continue to secure our platform.
I started Facebook, and at the end of the day I’m responsible for what happens on our platform. I’m serious about doing what it takes to protect our community. While this specific issue involving Cambridge Analytica should no longer happen with new apps today, that doesn’t change what happened in the past. We will learn from this experience to secure our platform further and make our community safer for everyone going forward.
I want to thank all of you who continue to believe in our mission and work to build this community together. I know it takes longer to fix all these issues than we’d like, but I promise you we’ll work through this and build a better service over the long term, says Zuckerberg in status update.