Facebook’s role in data misuse sets off storms on two continents

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The silhouette of Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., is seen during the Oculus Connect 4 product launch event in San Jose, California, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017.

Facebook on Sunday faced a backlash about how it protects user data, as American and British lawmakers demanded that it explain how a political data firm with links to President Trump’s 2016 campaign was able to harvest private information from more than 50 million Facebook profiles without the social network’s alerting users.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, went so far as to press for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to appear before the panel to explain what the social network knew about the misuse of its data “to target political advertising and manipulate voters.”

The calls for greater scrutiny followed reports on Saturday in The New York Times and The Observer of London that Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm founded by Stephen K. Bannon and Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, had used the Facebook data to develop methods that it claimed could identify the personalities of individual American voters and influence their behavior. The firm’s so-called psychographic modeling underpinned its work for the Trump campaign in 2016, though many have questioned the effectiveness of its techniques.

But Facebook did not inform users whose data had been harvested. The lack of disclosure could violate laws in Britain and in many American states.

Damian Collins, a Conservative lawmaker in Britain who is leading a parliamentary inquiry into fake news and Russian meddling in the country’s referendum to leave the European Union, said this weekend that he, too, would call on Mr. Zuckerberg or another top executive to testify. The social network sent executives who handle policy matters to answer questions at an earlier hearing in February.

“It is not acceptable that they have previously sent witnesses who seek to avoid answering difficult questions by claiming not to know the answers,” Mr. Collins said in a statement. “This also creates a false reassurance that Facebook’s stated policies are always robust and effectively policed.”

The fallout from the reports added to questions Facebook was already confronting over the use of its platform by those seeking to spread Russian propaganda and fake news. The social media giant has grappled with the criticism over the issue for much of the past year, and struggled to keep public opinion on its side.

Over the weekend, Facebook was on the defensive. Top executives took to Twitter to argue that the company’s protections had not been breached, and that Facebook was thus not at fault.

“This was unequivocally not a data breach,” tweeted Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook executive. “No systems were infiltrated, no passwords or information were stolen or hacked.”

The data was obtained in 2014, when Cambridge Analytica, through an outside researcher, paid users small sums to take a personality quiz and download an app, which would scrape some private information from their profiles and from those of their friends — activity that Facebook permitted at the time. The approach was based on a technique pioneered at Cambridge University by data scientists who claimed it could reveal more about a person than even their parents or romantic partners knew.

The researcher hired by Cambridge Analytica, Alexandr Kogan, told Facebook and his app’s users that he was collecting information for academic purposes, not for a political data firm owned by a wealthy conservative. Facebook did nothing to verify how the information was being used.

Mr. Bosworth argued on Twitter that a violation had been committed only by Cambridge Analytica and Mr. Kogan, whose app “did not follow the data agreements.”

Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, issued a similar defense in a series of tweets that have since been deleted.

“The recent Cambridge Analytica stories by the NY Times and The Guardian are important and powerful, but it is incorrect to call this a ‘breach’ under any reasonable definition of the term,” Mr. Stamos tweeted.

The explanation did little, however, to stem the tide of anger as independent researchers pointed out that many others could have similarly misused Facebook data.

“Facebook’s platform must protect us from predatory behavior,” wrote a Twitter user named Evan Baily, “or we can’t and shouldn’t trust the platform.”

 

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