In March, journalists from UK newspapers The Guardian and The Observer released an in-depth news story about an obscure data-analytics firm called Cambridge Analytica. In an enormous information leak, Cambridge Analytica harvested the Facebook data of around 87 million users without their permission in order to create and sell detailed voter profiles to political campaigners and alter the democratic process. According to a company whistleblower, the company heavily influenced both the Brexit campaign and the 2016 U.S. election, using highly-targeted data mining strategies that hold serious implications for online privacy.
Cambridge Analytica is a UK-based political consulting firm founded in 2013. The brain-child of Alexander Nix – director of its parent firm the SCL group – the Cambridge Analytica company was set-up to specialize in the mining and analyzing of data to be sold for “information operations”: the use of this data to target public opinion.
Steve Bannon, who would later become the Trump campaign’s chief strategist, became heavily involved in the company in 2014. In their partnership with Bannon, Cambridge Analytica sought to collect copious amounts of personal data on individuals all across the United States with the purpose of creating a highly targeted right-wing political and cultural campaign. The company would become what whistleblower Chris Wylie would call “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindf*ck tool”.
The tool with which to wage this “psychological warfare” was Facebook. From its creation in 2007 until its re-modelling in 2014, Facebook had given tens of thousands of online apps access to large amounts of shareable user data. One such app, created by Aleksandr Kogan at the University of Cambridge, came in the form of a personality quiz. Facebook gave this app trusted access to the data of any user who took the quiz, as well as the data of everyone on their individual friends lists: a number that quickly expanded from around 320,000 quiz-takers to millions of unsuspecting individuals. This information was then bought by Cambridge Analytica in 2014 to use in their extensive profiling operation, first in the 2014 mid-term elections and again in Trump’s election in 2016.
Facing the Consequences
Facebook’s neck is on the line. While the platform was re-modelled in 2014 to restrict online application access to only usernames, emails, and friends lists, this still remains to be the largest data breach in the company’s history. Once it was revealed that Zuckerberg knew about Kogan’s unauthorized use of the data in 2015 but was tricked into thinking that Kogan deleted it all, the scandal exploded. The story drew instant reactions on both sides of the Atlantic, with top representatives in U.K. and U.S. governments calling for immediate action and answers from the social media company.
The most up-to-date and comprehensive examination of the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Zuckerberg’s plan for Facebook going forward occurred during Zuckerberg’s two-day congressional hearing. The Facebook CEO appeared in front of both Senators and House Members of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on April 10th and 11th. Zuckerberg’s testimony in this setting remains most pertinent and revealing for analysis, both in highlighting what the past problems were and what the potential problems in the future – with his proposed “solution” – might be.
It is hard to believe that the 20-year-old Zuckerberg in his dormitory at Harvard would have ever thought that he would one day be called to testify in front of Congress. The CEO looked like a deer in the headlights as he was grilled for hours on end by angry (and often technologically-inept) representatives. While his manner was very respectful, his long and verbose answers to simple questions indicated that he did not want to give straight answers. Representative Pallone of New Jersey asked if he would agree to change “all user default settings to minimize the collection and use of users’ data,” following up the question with a quip: “I don’t think that it’s hard for you for to say yes, unless I’m missing something.” Zuckerberg simply avoided answering by retorting, “Congressman, I think that this is a complex issue that deserves more than a one-word answer.”
Wading through Zuckerberg’s verbal dodges, a main point emerged: at this time, Facebook has done nothing illegal nor anything to violate its Terms of Service. This data leak violates its current ethics and Terms of Service, but at the time of the data harvesting, the implicated app was acting within its rights guaranteed by the company. Zuckerberg has had to come to terms with the fact that it was actually Facebook’s failed business model that allowed for the unauthorized use of all this data.
While it did not out-right violate any terms or laws, there is clearly an ethical violation here. First, 50 million users were implicated by the initial reporting, then the number expanded to 87 million, and now Facebook has declared that it could have exposed “most” of its 2 billion users. That is a huge breach of user privacy that rests on Facebook’s hands, and a huge breach of trust too. Users might have consented to Facebook using this data, but there is certainly nothing in their Terms and Conditions about data sale to malicious third parties.
The revealing fact that the social media company knew about the breach in 2015 also poses a large problem. Firstly, Facebook found out about the data leak because of another story released by the Guardian, not through its own infrastructure. They then failed to ensure that all data had been deleted, and Zuckerberg even admitted that they did not even ban Cambridge Analytica from advertising on the site. It seems as if Zuckerberg and his team are not only ill-equipped to manage the problem, but they are seriously lacking in their ability to recognize any problem in the first place.
Looking to the Future
It is clear that Facebook messed up. However, a somewhat more pertinent question seems to be: does the Congressional hearing signal any change in the future?
Once again, Zuckerberg’s proposed solution promises an ineffective conclusion. His statement at the testimony essentially outlined that the platform would further restrict the information that apps could obtain through the site and that it would fully investigate all current and past applications given access. Firstly, no matter what information is shared with these apps, it is clear that these third parties pose a security risk. Facebook can do everything it can to ensure that its own company does not release its data, but what mechanisms are managing these thousands of third parties?
Secondly, the assurance that Zuckerberg’s team will investigate every, single app in the past and present is ambitious, at best. Zuckerberg himself admitted that there were tens of thousands of apps given access to copious amounts of user data in the past, so that will take a huge amount of time. Zuckerberg also detailed that the company’s own investigation is at a current halt because of current U.S. and U.K. governmental investigations take precedent. To top it all off, it has recently come to light that Facebook was subpoenaed by the Mueller Russia investigation. So not only will this take time, but it is time that the company simply does not have.
Also, what is to stop other applications lying about the deleting stolen data, like Kogan and Cambridge Analytica did? Even if the company miraculously finds a way to deal with the problem quickly, will their investigative strategies even work?
Quick and effective change does not seem to be formulating on Facebook’s side of the line, so what about the public? Despite Zuckerberg being called to testify in front of Congress, Facebook’s stock has actually climbed by almost 10 points over the two-day trial. The site has an estimated 2.1 billion users worldwide, with 1.4 billion users logging-in daily. The company also owns many other sites and technology companies, with Whatsapp and Instagram adding to that long list. As for the numbers, the Facebook user base has seemingly been almost unaffected by the scandal thus far: in fact, the number of users continues to climb, and Forbes predicts its “strong growth metrics” to continue in the long run.
As a student in particular, the convenience of Facebook is that almost everyone I come into contact with at least has a Facebook account. It is hard to believe that many of Facebook’s 2.1 billion users, as well as those on Instagram or Whatsapp, will give up their accounts, no matter how scandalous this data breach might be. Clearly, Zuckerberg needs to be held accountable by more than just his applications’ users.
Holding such a large company in charge of so much highly personal data accountable will prove to be one of Congress’ most monumental tasks in recent politics. The effectiveness of this process, however, remains to be seen.
Edited by Alec Regino