The recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal resulted in millions of Facebook users’ data being sold to the latter company without their knowledge or consent. The breach affected 87 million users and has raised concerns about how to protect individuals’ personal privacy and data online.
The concern about how Facebook managed and protected user data began in a Washington Post opinion editorial May 24, 2010. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for misusing users’ personal data. He stated that Facebook will work to clarify how users’ data is utilized and do a better job at protecting user privacy in the future.
Cambridge Analytica began the activity that contributed to the scandal in 2013. Cambridge Academic Aleksandr Kogan and the company Global Science Research created an app to ask Facebook users to answer questions for a psychological profile while harvesting their personal data simultaneously. The app, known as Thisisyourdigitallife through Facebook had almost 300,000 users take the survey, harvested their personal data as well as their friends’. Kogan soon had access to millions of Facebook users’ data. Facebook made additional rule changes in 2014, but they did not affect Kogan’s use of personal data already acquired.
Cambridge Analytica has been involved in 2016 election ad campaigns for Presidential Candidates such as Senator Ted Cruz as well as President Donald Trump. The Trump Campaign used its ties to Cambridge Analytica through Steve Bannon to obtain voter political preference profiles and target specific individuals with ads to influence their vote and determine where to send Trump for campaign rallies. Other 2016 contenders paid Cambridge Analytica for similar services such as Ted Cruz, Ben Carson’s campaign and later the Republican Party when Trump accepted the Republican nomination.
Christopher Wylie, a Cambridge Academic whistleblower described how the company exploited Facebook to obtain user data on millions of Americans. Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook profiles and created models of individuals to track how they would vote in elections such as the United States 2016 Presidential Election and the United Kingdom Brexit Referendum. Voters were targeted with specific ads based on political preference.
Facebook released a statement on the controversy in 2015 and stated it would work to protect and retrieve the more than 50 million affected Facebook users’ data. Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix denied that the company works with Facebook or has obtained Facebook data. Facebook lawyers sent Wylie letters asking him to destroy Facebook data. Facebook never checked that the data had been properly deleted more than two years later.
Zuckerberg responded to the Cambridge Analytica scandal March 21. He stated that he will do more to protect user data. He did not explicitly apologize for the scandal but stated it was a breach of trust that the company would work to fix. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg stated that the scandal violated user trust and that she regrets that Facebook did not do enough to protect user data. Congress responded to the controversy by ordering Zuckerberg to testify under oath to Congress about the scandal. They ridiculed him on Facebook’s inability to protect user data and that if social media sites like Facebook do not change, then privacy will disappear.
Zuckerberg’s April 10 testimony highlighted Facebook’s failures to protect user data. Lawmakers and citizens on both sides of the aisle were outraged at the blatant Fourth Amendment violation. The testimony highlighted concerns of the disconnect between Congress and the technological world. Several members of Congress asked obvious questions that the younger generation could easily answer and made it clear that Congress did not understand various technological aspects of Facebook. It raises concerns as to how they can regulate a business that they do not understand. Nevertheless, they asked several questions that highlighted the dangers of Facebook’s influence in the digital age.
The scandal has strengthened the call for government regulation. The political fallout from the scandal has resulted in a drop in Facebook’s stock. The resulting fallout has raised concerns about how Facebook and other social media sites use their members’ personal information, remain transparent and how we as citizens can maintain privacy in the digital age.
Photo Credits to AFP.