From Connecting People to Electing Candidates: Facebook Data Scandal

By | March 25, 2018

Facebook’s head operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, shared same Zuckerberg’s post and remarked on that: “We realize this was a major violation of people’s trust, and I deeply regret that we didn’t do enough to deal with it.”


Introduction:

We, the people of the 21st century, are an (almost) online generation, shaped via and by the social media networks. And now, with the rise of healthy-turning into-cut throat competition among the cellular companies in recent times, internet availability has become easy and quite affordable compared to a decade ago.

So, in the era, when people used a 0.80 ₨ text message to even convey a single “hey” to (mostly) their friends and family, Facebook came to their rescue. All you ever need is an active internet connection and a device, of course, to operate. From public profiles to messages to calls to video calls, Facebook’s got it all. And with each passing day, it was breaking the monopoly of text message recharge bundles.

A small social media venture by Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues launched on 4th February 2004 has now become a giant company. According to some statistic reports, by the end of first quarter of 2017, the number of active users is believed to be 2.2 billion people across the globe. Active users, for this purpose, are the ones who have logged into their accounts in last 30 days.

As the company has continued to grow, so have the issues and challenges. The recent one being the Cambridge Analytica scandal. So basically, the controversy is about the data leakage of around 50 million Facebook users through Cambridge Analytica and Facebook allegedly knew about it all.

Cambridge Analytica:

Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a consultancy and data analytics firm that provides services to business and political sector, headquartered in London, United Kingdom. It was set up in 2013 as a subsidiary of its parent company SCL Group, which offers the similar services too. CA claims to provide the organizations with an analysis of a huge population and create target segments accordingly. The sources of CA are believed to be some of the social media platforms including Facebook, their own applications, and polls.

What has happened and why?

Cambridge Analytica, in its Twitter bio, mentions it as “behavioral microtargeting”, “Political campaign support” and “digital support”. But only after a whistle-blower and an ex-employee of CA, Christopher Wylie came forward and revealed about the process, it was clear that the “microtargeting” tools they were using weren’t really ethical.

On 16th of March, 2018, Chris Wylie, a former CA employee, in an exclusive interview with Observer revealed about the company’s acts and operations. He claimed that CA has used the private Facebook data of tens of millions of American voters to influence their behavior and choices during the presidential election campaign of Donald Trump. The company was funded by Robert Marcer by $15 million, a US billionaire and headed by Steve Bannon, adviser of Donald J. Trump as (then) Vice President of the company with Alexander Nix, CEO of both, SCL and Cambridge Analytica.

The data was collected by a professor at Cambridge University, Aleksandr Kogan through an app called “This is Your Digital Life”, a personality tester app developed for (on record) research purpose. The app was downloaded by some 2,70,000 people, who were paid to take a test through the app. Here’s the twist, it didn’t only collect data of those 2,70,000 people but also harvested data of the friends of the test takers. And that made the number of the people whose data were harvested to 50 million Facebook users from 2,70,000 users. Facebook, through its “Public Policy”, allowed it only to improve user experience and barred it from selling or using for any other purposes. Everything that happened till this was proper and completely legal, as per the Facebook’s rules.

Okay, so Kogan wanted to program a research, he used his app developed by his company, paid people to take the test, Facebook allowed, everything was fair too; so, what is the issue? The issue began when Kogan provided all the data of 50 million users to Cambridge Analytica, which used them to influence the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. But, the core question here is, how did Cambridge Analytica step into the picture and why would GSR provide the data to CA?

According to Wylie, SCL, the parent of CA, had a commercial agreement with GSR, regarding harvesting and processing Facebook data. The Observer has claimed to have seen the contract, dated 4th June 2014. In an interview with CNN on 17th March, Wylie also claimed that they’ve spent around $1 million on data collection of 50-60 million Facebook individual profiles, who could be matched with the voters’ list.

According to him, CA didn’t only hire data scientists, psychologists, strategists, but also hired creatives, designers, videographers, photographers etc. So basically, they used the data to know what kind of quotes, messages, and speeches would be vulnerable to the target audience and consequently changing the perceptions of the voters towards a situation. He (Wylie) described this as a “Psychological Warfare Weapon”, something, Steve Bannon wanted to play with the psychology of an entire country.

This is a serious breach of trust between Facebook and Kogan, as Kogan and his company GSR’s app had special permissions from Facebook to use the data for the academic purpose. Now, with all the news airing around and new cards being unfolded, CA’s CEO Alexander Nix has been suspended and Facebook, after five days of total silence, has announced a full data audit.

Why should we care?

It is alleged that both, SCL and CA have been a part of campaigns even in India. SCL partnered up with Ovleno Business Intelligence Pvt. Ltd. and the company on its website, had claimed to have worked with BJP, Congress, JD(U), Airtel and ICICI Bank, which, has been closed.

The most fundamental and basic answer to this question is that we too are voters, aren’t we? What happened, in this case, was completely psychological. Those voters were being influenced and they had no clue about it. It could’ve happened to any of us, or what if it already has happened and we never knew?

If we think a bit deeper into the issue, it’s of Facebook’s own creation. Facebook even displays ads on the basis of insights on people’s likes and interests. If they can build a target segment for advertising of their own users then obviously anybody can do it too (provided that if harvested data). And firms like Cambridge Analytica are pro in what they do.

With people like Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, tweeting #DeleteFacebook, it leads us to a crucial question- what is Facebook doing for our data privacy?

As users, what best we can do now is to check our privacy settings and lead it to the minimal access to third-party apps or the even general public. We have options like “who can see my profile info?”, “Who can see my past & future posts”, Privacy Check-up, etc. In addition to this, Facebook allows us to check what are the apps that have access to our profile data; we can manage such apps, or even delete the app and its activity concerned with Facebook.

Facebook, in 2014, made many changes in their privacy policies. One of the giant change was restricting third-party apps to have access to its users’ data. And also, the apps had to take prior permission from Facebook for using its data for any given purpose. But, clearly, it wasn’t enough. And even after certifying in 2015 for complete deletion of the data, it seems that CA and Kogan still had it.

In a recent interview after the controversy, with CNN, Mark Zuckerberg said that he is sorry that it happened. He mentioned the change of platform policies in 2014 that restricted a lot of third-party apps to gain access to the people’s data. Facebook, now, is going to review all the apps that have any sort of access or data of users. He further added, “it will be an intensive process, but this is important. This is something that in retrospect, we clearly should’ve done, upfront. With Cambridge Analytica, we should not have trusted with the certification that they gave us. We are not going to make that mistake again.”

Facebook is definitely not going to let an unprofessional firm like CA ruin its reputation around the globe. We don’t know what future contains for all of them, but we surely can say that Facebook’s going to work hard on this and make us trust it again- by removing the tiniest of doubt that we have conceived in our minds, following the current events. Some new privacy tools and platform policies can be put forth by the giant social media platform to secure its people and their data.

The Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence after five days on the data leak scandal that has enveloped his company in a Facebook post acknowledging that the policies that allowed the misuse data were “a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who freely share their data with Facebook and expect us to protect it.

Facebook’s take on the controversy:

“Facebook is changing the way it shares data with third-party applications” Mark Zuckerberg announced on Wednesday in his first public statement since the issue came up. Zuckerberg likewise addressed media outlets, in his meeting with CNN additionally, he apologized for the “breach of trust”, he stated: “I’m extremely sad this happened”. While chatting with the New York Times, Zuckerberg communicated qualified openness to testifying before Congress and said that he was not by any stretch of the imagination contradicted to Facebook is subject to more regulations.

Facebook’s head operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, shared same Zuckerberg’s post and remarked on that: “We realize this was a major violation of people’s trust, and I deeply regret that we didn’t do enough to deal with it.”

On 17th March, Paul Grewal, Facebook’s representative general council, seemed to protect the policies that permitted information collecting from accidental companions, writing in an announcement: “Aleksandr Kogan asked and gained access to information from users who chose to sign up to his app, and everyone involved gave their consent.” In any case, following five days of shock from the general public and calls for investigations and control from legislators in the United States and the United Kingdom, the organization gives off an impression of being recognizing that reprimanding users for not understanding its byzantine terms of service will won’t succeed anymore. The organization will examine applications that approached ” large amounts of information ” before the 2014 changes, Zuckerberg stated, and review any applications that show “suspicious activity”.

Facebook additionally guaranteed to limit the measure of information third-party developers can get to when users sign in to their sites with their Facebook profile, kill information sharing for applications that have not been utilized for three months, and move the apparatus that enables users to confine the information they share from the Settings menu to the News Feed.

Zuckerberg’s announcement remarkably did not offer any clarification for why Facebook did not try to inform affected users when foreign media initially told the organization of the data misuse in December 2015. He addressed the inquiry in his press interviews, recognizing to CNN that it was “a mistake” to depend on Kogan and Cambridge Analytica’s certifications that they had crushed the information. “I don’t know about you, but I’m used to when people legally certify that they’re going to do something, that they do it,” he said. “We need to make sure that we don’t make that mistake ever again.”

Jonathan Albright, an exploration executive at the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, said that while he respected Zuckerberg’s clarification of how Cambridge Analytica accessed the information being referred to, he was disappointed that the CEO did not address why Facebook empowered so much third-party access to its users’ close to home data for such huge numbers of years.

The Effect of the Controversy on Different Nations:

  • UK Parliamentary Committee summons Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is being solicited to testify by the chairmen of the UK parliamentary media board of committee, Damian Collins. He said the advisory group has over and again asked Facebook how it utilizes information and that organization authorities have been deceiving to the board of committee, as per a report by the Associated Press. “It is presently time to get notification from a senior Facebook official with the adequate expert to give a precise record of this catastrophic failure of process. Given your dedication toward the beginning of the New Year to ‘fixing’ Facebook, I trust that this agent will be you,” he said.

  • US Senators summoned Mark Zuckerberg for testimony

Similarly, in the United States of America as well, Democrats in the Senate approached Zuckerberg to testify. As indicated by AP, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Facebook’s most recent privacy scandal a “danger signal.” Representative Amy Klobuchar, who is Democrat from Minnesota likewise on the Judiciary Committee, composed on Twitter, “Facebook breach: This is a major breach that must be investigated. It’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves. I’ve called for more transparency & accountability for online political ads. They say “trust us. Mark Zuckerberg needs to affirm before Senate Judiciary.”

  • Indian government’s response to the Facebook data leaks

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Information and Technology, addressing to the press said, any attempts by Facebook to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will not be tolerated. “If need be, strong action will be taken. Let me make it very, very clear, we fully support freedom of the press, speech, and expression; we fully support the free exchange of ideas on social media. But any attempt, covert or overt, by social media, including Facebook, of trying to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will neither be appreciated nor be tolerated.

He further added that the government could also summon Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg if needed. “Mr. Mark Zuckerberg, you better note the observation of the IT Minister of India. We welcome Facebook in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of Facebook’s system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you to India.”

Conclusion:

Science and technology are growing bigger day by day. Nothing can be hidden from anybody in this generation. Anybody can do a research on how to make a bomb or how to fly an airplane while sitting in his drawing room. With this rapidly advancing technology risk also grew. The Cambridge Analytica breach is one drawback or says one issue of several problems with social networking platforms. This isn’t simply a Facebook problem, it is also a feature of other sites.

Facebook is presently scrambling to address the information breach, the exposure of consumer data has genuine results, and Facebook and its rivals can’t just be left to control themselves. The time has come to change the American hands-off mentality to data protection and information assurance. Data protection in the US remains a Wild West, with organizations given unlimited power to gather user data and tech organizations taking a cattle rustler attitude toward improving themselves from consumers’ information.

When Facebook was started it was the tiny and unknown site but now there are almost 2.2 Billion users of Facebook. Now we can even buy and sell products on Facebook apart from advertisement. It’s a colossus that, like all business giants, values profit over the well-being of its users. It’s not a Facebook problem that we use it, the main problem is we blindly share any information and data without knowing the cause. It’s high time that we should think what we should share on Facebook and as well as how often we share it. We can treat the platform more cautiously and treat it just like a business giant.


– Swapnil Fatania and Subham Saurabh

Content Writers at Legal Bites


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