Tech Tent: Questions for Zuckerberg and Cambridge

It was a two-day interrogation with dozens of questions – some of them acute, some of them rambling, a few quite bizarre.

On the Tech Tent podcast this week, we zero in on what Mark Zuckerberg failed to answer during his US congressional appearances, about just how much data Facebook collects – and the control users have over it.

We also try to find out whether something bad is going on at University of Cambridge when it comes to academic use of Facebook data, as Mr Zuckerberg suggested.

  • Stream or download the latest Tech Tent podcast
  • Listen live every Friday at 15.00 GMT on the BBC World Service

    The single most uncomfortable moment for Facebook’s founder was probably when Senator Dick Durbin asked him whether he would share with the committee the name of the hotel where he had spent the night in Washington.

    After a long pause and an embarrassed grin he answered “umm…no!”

    It made the point, according to Senator Durbin, that he was more cautious about his privacy than the average Facebook user who “checks in” without a thought.

    The following day, he was asked by Congressman Ben Lujan about the data collected on people who had never even signed up to Facebook. Again, Mr Zuckerberg appeared uncomfortable. He had never heard of the widely used term “shadow profiles” to describe this kind of data collection.

    Then the congressman took us down an Alice in Wonderland-style rabbit hole, where people who do not use Facebook are told to log in to their Facebook accounts to find out what data Facebook holds on them. “We’ve got to fix that,” he said.

    Frederike Kaltheuner from Privacy International tells Tech Tent that this kind of data collection, with users unaware of what is happening, is all too common – and Facebook is far from the only culprit.

    We also examine the issue raised by Mr Zuckerberg when he was asked whether he planned to sue either Dr Aleksandr Kogan or Cambridge University over the misuse of Facebook data.

    ‘Stronger action’

    He talked of a whole programme at the university, where a number of researchers were building similar apps to that made by Dr Kogan for Cambridge Analytica.

    “We do need to know whether there was something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us,” he said.

    The university fired straight back. Mr Zuckerberg should have known that perfectly respectable academic research into social media had been going on, some of it with the involvement of Facebook employees. And as for Dr Kogan, the university had written to Facebook about its allegations against him but had not received a reply.

    On Wednesday morning, before Mr Zuckerberg’s remarks, I visited the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre and found some acknowledgement of the harm caused to the university’s reputation.

    The Centre, which is located in the Judge Business School, was drawn into the controversy when Facebook banned Cubeyou, another firm that had developed a personality quiz in collaboration with the university’s academics.

    Business development director Vesselin Popov insisted it was opt-in only and was in line with Facebook’s policies at the time, so was not at all like the app developed for Cambridge Analytica by Dr Kogan.

    He told me that Dr Kogan’s work had raised issues for the university: “Even if an academic does something – quote unquote in their ‘spare time’, with their own company – they still ought to be held to professional standards as a psychologist.”

    Dr Kogan and the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre are in dispute over whether a row over his personality app – and the involvement of the centre’s academics – was about ethics or money. I wrote another article about that issue on Friday.

    But the two sides agree that Facebook needs to focus on what commercial businesses do with user data, rather than academics.

    “It’s very clear that Cambridge Analytica and these kinds of companies are the product of an environment to which Facebook has contributed greatly,” says Mr Popov. “Although they might be making some changes today in response to public and regulatory pressure, this needs to be seen as an outcome of very permissive attitudes towards those companies.”

    With an audit of thousands of Facebook apps under way, we may hear more in the coming weeks about just how cavalier some companies have been with our personal data.

    • Stream or download the latest Tech Tent podcast
    • Listen live every Friday at 15.00 GMT on the BBC World Service

Mark Zuckerberg’s dreaded homework assignments

Over two days, almost 10 hours.

If you watched every moment of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of Congress this week, you’ll know he rolled out one phrase an awful lot: “I’ll have my team get back to you.”

Now some of these were bits of data Mr Zuckerberg simply didn’t have to hand – such as why a specific advertisement for a political candidate in Michigan didn’t get approved.

Other follow ups, though, will require some hard graft from his team. What they produce could provide even more negative headlines for the company, as it is forced to divulge more of its inner workings than it has ever felt comfortable with.

Looking through the transcripts, I’ve counted more than 20 instances where Mr Zuckerberg promised to get back to representatives with more information. But these are the assignments I think could cause the company the most headaches – and provide some revealing answers.

1) Data on non-users

Set by: Congressman Ben Lujan (Democrat, New Mexico)

“You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you’re collecting data on people who are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement.”

Dubbed “shadow” profiles, details of exactly what Facebook gathers on people who haven’t even signed up to the service has been always been a bit of mystery.

Even, apparently, to Mr Zuckerberg himself. He testified that he didn’t know the term, but acknowledged the firm did monitor non-users for “security” purposes.

Mr Zuckerberg promised to share more details on what data is gathered on people who don’t sign up for Facebook, as well as a full breakdown of how many data points it has on those who do.

In a related request, Mr Zuckerberg will provide details on how users are tracked (on all their devices) when they are logged out of Facebook.

2) Moving to opt-in, not opt-out

Set by: Congressman Frank Pallone (Democrat, New Jersey)

“I think you should make that commitment.”

Creating new regulation will be an arduous, flawed process. But one thing Facebook could do right now? Move to an opt-in model, one which requires users to decide to make something public, as is the default (and most popular) option for posting content now.

In a similar vein, Mr Zuckerberg was asked to get back to Congressman Frank Pallone on how the company might consider collecting less information on its users.

3) Repercussions for censorship mistakes

Set by: Congressman Steve Scalise (Republican, Louisiana)

“Was there a directive to put a bias in [the algorithms]? And, first, are you aware of this bias that many people have looked at and analysed and seen?”

One surprising admission made by Mr Zuckerberg before these hearings was that despite acknowledging the company made big mistakes, nobody has been fired over the Cambridge Analytica affair.

Representative Steve Scalise wants to take questions on accountability a step further.

In cases where Facebook reverses a decision to remove content – i.e. admitting it over-moderated – what kind of repercussions did those responsible face? If someone created an algorithm that unfairly filtered certain political views, was there any kind of punishment?

4) Specific rules for minors

Set by: Senator Ed Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts)

“We’re leaving these children to the most rapacious commercial predators in the country who will exploit these children unless we absolutely have a law on the books.”

On Facebook the minimum age of users is 13, not counting the company’s Messenger for Kids app (which doesn’t collect the type of data Facebook’s main app does).

But for those aged 13-18, or maybe 21, what happens in those oh-so-delicate years should be protected by tighter rules, Senator Ed Markey suggested.

Mr Zuckerberg said the idea “deserved a lot of discussion”, but maybe not a new law. He promised to get his team to “flesh out the details”.

5) How many ‘like’ and ‘share’ buttons are out there?

Set by: Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (Democrat, Michigan)

“It doesn’t matter whether you have a Facebook account. Through those tools, Facebook is able to collect information from all of us.”

It seems like everywhere you look there is a button prompting you to “like” or share things on Facebook – indeed, there’s one on the page you’re reading right now.

A request to at least estimate how many of Facebook’s buttons are out there might at first seem like an abstract demand – but the response could be quite something.

The “like” buttons enable Facebook to track users on pages that are not part of Facebook itself, providing more data for advertisers.

If it’s even possible to tot up how many buttons are out there on the web, expect a number in the hundreds of millions – that’s hundreds of millions of pages with which Facebook is tracking your activity beyond its own borders.

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Cambridge University saw ‘no issue’ with Facebook research

The academic at the centre of Facebook’s data scandal has hit back at Mark Zuckerberg’s suggestion that “something bad” might be going on at Cambridge University.

Dr Aleksandr Kogan, who collected data for Cambridge Analytica, told the BBC that Facebook should be investigating commercial uses of its data, not focusing on academic research.

He also denied that fellow academics had had any “ethical issues” with his work for Cambridge Analytica.

On Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg said at a congressional hearing that there were a number of Cambridge academics building similar apps to Dr Kogan’s.

He said Facebook needed to know “whether there was something bad going on at Cambridge University”.

Commercial purposes

In an email to the BBC, Dr Kogan said it was true that the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre had developed a personality quiz to collect Facebook data, and that the dataset was shared with academics around the world.

However, he added: “It’s surprising that Facebook would choose to focus its investigation on academics working with other academics. There are tens of thousands of apps [which] had access to the data for commercial purposes.

“I would have thought it makes the most sense to start there.”

On Wednesday, Cambridge University said it was surprised that Mr Zuckerberg had only recently become aware of its research into social media, since it had appeared in peer-reviewed journals.

It said Facebook had not responded to its request for information about the allegations against Dr Kogan.

‘Still representing university’

Dr Kogan also defended himself against criticism by the university’s Psychometric Centre, which said that even though he had never been connected with it, his commercial activities had reflected on the university as a whole.

Vesselin Popov, the business development director of the Psychometrics Centre, said: “Our opinion is that even if an academic does something ‘in their spare time’ with their own company, they still ought to be held to professional standards as a psychologist because, like it or not, they are still representing that body and the university in doing it.”

Dr Kogan said he was surprised by Mr Popov’s comments as he had discussions with academics at the centre about their participation in the project.

“In truth, the Psychometrics Centre never had an ethical issue with the project, as far as I’m aware. To the contrary, my impression was that they very much wanted to be a part of it,” he told the BBC.

He said the relationship went sour only after a dispute over how much the Psychometric Centre would be paid for its involvement in the project, not over any ethical concerns.

The Psychometrics Centre, which is based at the university’s Judge Business School, rejected Dr Kogan’s version of events.

It said it had complained to the university authorities about his behaviour towards two of its academic staff, not about the monetary issue.

Cambridge University says it has received reassurances from Dr Kogan about his business interests but is now conducting a wide-ranging review of the case.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg to testify before US committee

Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is to testify before the US House Commerce Committee regarding the firm’s use and protection of user data.

Facebook has faced criticism after it emerged it had known for years that Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from about 50 million of its users.

He will testify before the committee on Wednesday, 11 April.

Committee chairman Greg Walden and member Frank Pallone welcomed the decision by Mr Zuckerberg.

“This hearing will be an important opportunity to shed light on critical consumer data privacy issues and help all Americans better understand what happens to their personal information online,” the pair said.

Facebook is facing scrutiny over its data collection following allegations that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, obtained data on tens of millions of Facebook users to try to influence elections.

Cambridge Analytica worked for US President Donald Trump’s campaign.

The company, funded in part by Trump supporter and billionaire financier Robert Mercer, paired consumer data with voter information.

  • Cambridge Analytica files spell out election tactics
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    Cambridge Analytica gathered the data through a personality test app, called This Is Your Digital Life, that was downloaded by fewer than 200,000 people.

    However, the app gave researchers access to the profiles of participants’ Facebook friends, allowing them to collect data from millions more users.

    Mr Walden and Mr Pallone said last month that they wanted to hear directly from Mr Zuckerberg after senior Facebook executives failed to answer questions during a private briefing with congressional staff about how Facebook and third-party developers use and protect consumer data.

    Facebook has also published new versions of its terms of service and data use policy.

    The firm said the documents were longer than the previous versions in order to make their language clearer and more descriptive.

    The data policy now states: “We don’t sell any of your information to anyone, and we never will.”

    However, this does not prevent the firm from using the data to let advertisers target their promotions. It will also continue to share anonymised analytics and insights with third-parties.

    Facebook will now carry out a week-long consultation before finalising the text and adopting it.

    ‘Breach of trust’

    Facebook, which has two billion users, is now one of the main ways politicians connect with voters. It has been looking to repair its public image and restore users’ trust since the Cambridge Analytica scandal emerged.

    Facebook said last month that it had hired forensic auditors to examine if Cambridge Analytica still had the data.

    Mr Zuckerberg has apologised for a “breach of trust”, and taken out full-page advertisements in several UK and US Sunday newspapers.

    He has also said he welcomes more regulation.

    The US Senate commerce and judiciary committees also have requested that Mr Zuckerberg appear in front of them.

    And the US Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether Facebook engaged in unfair acts that caused substantial injury to consumers.

Zuckerberg: I’m still the man to run Facebook

Despite the turmoil that continues to surround his company, Mark Zuckerberg has insisted he is still the best person to lead Facebook.

“When you’re building something like Facebook which is unprecedented in the world,” he said on Wednesday, “there are things that you’re going to mess up.

“What I think people should hold us accountable for is if we are learning from our mistakes.”

As well as being Facebook’s chief executive, Mr Zuckerberg is chairman of the company’s board. When asked if his position had been discussed, he replied: “Not that I know of!”

The mere possibility that his leadership is in question is a scenario few would have predicted even a month ago.

But recent reports around improper data gathering by third parties – as well as fake news and propaganda – have prompted some to question Mr Zuckerberg’s ability to lead a company that some think has grown beyond his control.

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    ‘By design, he can’t be fired – he can only resign’

    Scott Stringer, head of New York City’s pension fund, said this week that Mr Zuckerberg should step aside. The fund owns approximately $1bn-worth of the social network.

    “They have two billion users,” Mr Stringer told CNBC.

    “They are in uncharted waters, and they have not comported themselves in a way that makes people feel good about Facebook and secure about their own data.”

    A piece in technology magazine Wired called for Mr Zuckerberg to step down in order to let Facebook start a “reputation-enhancing second chapter”.

    “He doesn’t just lead an institution that touches almost every person on the planet,” wrote Felix Salmon.

    “He also, thanks to financial engineering, has a majority of shareholder votes and controls the board, and is therefore answerable to no one.

    “By design, he can’t be fired – he can only resign. Which is exactly what he should now do.”

    ‘A man often criticised as lacking empathy’

    Mr Zuckerberg’s conference call went as well as the 33-year-old could have expected.

    Indeed, at one point he encouraged more time to take more questions.

    From his answers we learned a little more about the real toll of the negative publicity and the “deleteFacebook” movement. And so far the answer is: not much.

    There has been “no meaningful impact that we’ve observed” he said, before quickly adding: “But look, it’s not good!”

    What we couldn’t tell during the call, of course, was to what extent Mr Zuckerberg was being quietly guided by his team in the room.

    But for a man often criticised as lacking empathy, it was a strong display lasting almost an hour. Investors certainly thought so – shares were up 3% once the call ended.

    Next week he will face a potentially tougher prospect, this time in front of the cameras, when he heads to Washington to testify before Congress.

    • Cambridge Analytica: The story so far

      Indeed, this session with the press was perhaps the ideal dress rehearsal.

      The dynamic around Mr Zuckerberg’s leadership could change dramatically in the coming months, as investigations – most notably from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – begin to probe deeper into how Facebook handled the public’s data.

      If the company is seen to have fallen short of its responsibility, and is hit with a potentially enormous fine, it could increase pressure on Facebook to make serious personnel changes.

      So far, despite all of the apologies and admissions of poor judgement, Mr Zuckerberg told reporters that not a single person at the company had been fired over the Cambridge Analytica fiasco.

      The buck stops with him, he said – and indeed it might.

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Scammers abused Facebook phone number search

Facebook was warned by security researchers that attackers could abuse its phone number and email search facility to harvest people’s data.

On Wednesday, the firm said “malicious actors” had been harvesting profiles for years by abusing the search tool.

It said anybody that had not changed their privacy settings after adding their phone number should assume their information had been harvested.

One security expert told the BBC the attack had been possible “for years”.

How did the attack work?

Until Wednesday, Facebook let people search for their friends’ profiles by typing in a phone number or email address.

The company has now disabled the ability to search by phone number.

Mark Zuckerberg spins himself some time

There are two ways to look at Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on Wednesday, his first since the Cambridge Analytica crisis unfolded.

They showed either a chief executive getting on top of the situation, and making what sounded like significant concessions in areas we wouldn’t expect.

Or, it was a skilled, composed display of PR spin – a media appearance for which he had almost six days to prepare.

Speaking to CNN’s Laurie Segall, Mr Zuckerberg made it look like he was giving up a lot, while simultaneously dodging the big issues.

Yes, he said he welcomed more regulation – but in a way that wouldn’t have that much impact on Facebook’s business at all.

Yes, he said he would be “happy” to testify before Congress and other committees around the world – but immediately gave himself the get-out clause he has used to avoid all of the other hearings so far.

Yes, he did say sorry – but only for the situation, not specifically for the actions of his company.

Simply – Mr Zuckerberg did enough to buy some time as he tries to get his company in order, but not much more than that.

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    His comment – “I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated” – seemed like a major admission that the time may have come for stricter rules on his business.

    In reality, he was advocating for a bill that would arguably have more impact on the people who advertise on Facebook than Facebook itself.

    “I think there are things like ads transparency regulation that I would love to see,” he told CNN.

    He was referring to the Honest Ads Act that’s being debated by US politicians right now, a proposed law that would force buyers of any online advertising relating to candidates in an election campaign to be more transparent about funding. In other words, the internet equivalent of messages like “I’m Donald Trump and I support this message” being tacked to TV spots.

    The Honest Ads Act would also require companies like Facebook to take “reasonable” steps to determine that no foreign power was buying ads.

    Here’s what’s worth knowing: following the fall-out over Russian-bought ads in the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook said it created the tools needed to handle political ad spending better.

    So if the Honest Ads Act was passed today, chances are Facebook would already be in compliance.

    Dodged hearings

    In the days following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, several investigatory committees in the US and Europe said they would be calling on Mr Zuckerberg to testify in person.

    “The short answer is I’m happy to,” he told CNN. “If it’s the right thing to do.”

    This has been Mr Zuckerberg’s position all along.

    In the past, he’s sent people like lawyer Colin Stretch, who took the lion’s share of questions when the social media companies were summoned to Washington late last year.

    When it wasn’t lawyers, the company opted to send specific department heads, such as policy boss Monika Bickert.

    But to be fair to Facebook, this is a valid approach. If Mr Zuckerberg is a good boss capable of delegating effectively, his department heads would certainly know more about their respective areas than he would.

    It’s worth remembering that when it comes to political theatre, those calling Mr Zuckerberg to Washington would enjoy very much the chance to look tough and impressive when dealing with a powerful tech leader.

    “That’s not a media opportunity – or at least it’s not supposed to be,” Mr Zuckerberg told CNN.

    “We just want to make sure we send whoever is best informed to do that.”

    The investigations looking at Facebook are focused on areas advertising, manipulation, consent and safety. Facebook has a top expert for each of those areas. But Mark Zuckerberg, it’s entirely reasonable to say, isn’t one of them.

    Sorry?

    When his initial statement was posted, those who read it noticed something immediately: he didn’t say sorry.

    Later, in follow up interviews – he appeared to offer something of an apology.

    “So this was a major breach of trust and I’m really sorry that this happened,” he told CNN, and repeated in similar words to Wired magazine, tech publication Recode and the New York Times, all of which were given interviews on Wednesday.

    And he is “sorry” – sorry that the company’s missteps and naivety (his word) led to $50bn being wiped off the company’s value and reputational damage from which it may never fully recover.

    His words today expressed an apology for the result, not the cause. Remember, it’s possible to feel sorry for one’s self.

    Analytica comeback

    For me, the most surprising remark Mr Zuckerberg made today was his answer to a question from the New York Times.

    “Are you giving any thought to allowing Cambridge Analytica back in?” asked the newspaper’s reporter, Sheera Frenkel.

    “We’re certainly not going to consider letting them back onto the platform until we have full confirmation that there’s no wrongdoing here,” Mr Zuckerberg said.

    So, it’s possible.

    Mr Zuckerberg’s recent struggles as chief executive have been because of his inability to understand the root of the public’s anger. First on fake news, and now this.

    Some people think that the public is less concerned about the specific nuances of whether or not a policy was breached, and more about the broad ethical stance of Facebook on the use of its data to achieve the aims that Cambridge Analytica promises its clients.

    Mr Zuckerberg had the chance to say such activity was no longer welcome on his network, but chose not to take it.

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Facebook’s biggest challenge yet

This might be the biggest crisis Facebook has faced since its founding, and the company’s initial response has not helped.

The proposed departure of the company’s data security chief, Alex Stamos, has spread anxiety through the company internationally, and it is being reported that this opened up already significant divisions within the company about just how transparent it should be.

The leadership question goes higher, however, to Mark Zuckerberg. When it was first suggested that Russia may have used the platform to interfere in the 2016 election, Zuckerberg initially described that as a “pretty crazy idea”. Months later he recanted, and announced a raft of measures to address the viral spread of disinformation.

This time, following the dogged and undercover reporting of Channel 4 News, The Observer and The New York Times, Facebook has responded with the bold assertion that tens of millions of people having their data scraped and passed on to a third party does not constitute a data breach.

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    Both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica deny any wrongdoing or breaking the law.

    And therein lies the rub. If this indeed isn’t a data breach; if it doesn’t strike these companies as a cause for alarm; and if what has happened is legal, then that might be the very reason that Facebook’s users – all two billion of them – should be worried.

    A message to sell

    Facebook has grown dizzyingly rich by operating what is in effect a mass surveillance tool. Most users have no idea just how much social media companies know about them. The business model that has made Facebook very rich is based on the quality of that data. Facebook uses that data to sell your attention to advertisers. Advertisers use smart messaging to influence behaviour, and try to get us to buy their products.

    As Hugo Rifkind wrote in The Times, what has happened now is that Facebook, the biggest and most powerful social media platform, has gone from selling mere products to selling politics, too. Political operatives, whether they be from democracies or not, also want to use smart messaging to influence behaviour, in order to get us to vote for a particular candidate, or to undermine a consensus and degrade the truth.

    A smart corporate response from Facebook would grant that the remarkable innovations and technology that have created its news feed, an often addictive and for now free product, are now being exploited for goals that are not always socially desirable.

    Instead the company’s instinct was to alight on a technicality, and say this was no data breach, despite the fact that it suspended the accounts of Cambridge Analytica and its whistleblower, Chris Wylie. Now at last the company is stepping into gear, calling a meeting of all staff to address concerns and answer questions.

    Several different investigations on both sides of the Atlantic are now underway. Mark Zuckerberg may not want to appear before the DCMS Select Committee, but he will have to make a public pronouncement soon enough. Blog posts alone won’t do.

    Open and connected?

    It must never be forgotten that, with all the zeal that has become customary in the world of superstar tech firms, Facebook executives talk about their company in missionary terms. We’re on a mission, they say, to make the world more open and connected.

    There is a tension, then, between the liberal inclinations of some Facebook staff – though of course the company as a whole is politically neutral – and the fact that a British company on whose board Steve Bannon sits may have used the platform to help President Trump gain office. Of course, Cambridge Analytica’s power could be wildly over-stated, and we don’t yet know sufficient detail on Russian misbehaviour on the platform.

    There is a tension between the globalist outlook of a company that hires supremely clever graduates from around the world, and the more nationalist tendencies of the current White House administration.

    And there is a tension between the self-declared mission to champion openness, and the fact that Mark Zuckerberg, for reasons still unclear, seemed to be unavailable for comment as lawmakers demanded to hear from him.

    At some point, these tensions become unbearable. A month ago ago, I said Facebook may have peaked, in influence if not in wealth. I wonder if Alex Stamos’s departure will persuade some staff there of this thesis.

Facebook’s biggest challenge yet

This might be the biggest crisis Facebook has faced since its founding, and the company’s initial response has not helped.

The proposed departure of the company’s data security chief, Alex Stamos, has spread anxiety through the company internationally, and it is being reported that this opened up already significant divisions within the company about just how transparent it should be.

The leadership question goes higher, however, to Mark Zuckerberg. When it was first suggested that Russia may have used the platform to interfere in the 2016 election, Zuckerberg initially described that as a “pretty crazy idea”. Months later he recanted, and announced a raft of measures to address the viral spread of disinformation.

This time, following the dogged and undercover reporting of Channel 4 News, The Observer and The New York Times, Facebook has responded with the bold assertion that tens of millions of people having their data scraped and passed on to a third party does not constitute a data breach.

  • US consumer watchdog ‘probes Facebook’
  • How to protect your Facebook data

    Both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica deny any wrongdoing or breaking the law.

    And therein lies the rub. If this indeed isn’t a data breach; if it doesn’t strike these companies as a cause for alarm; and if what has happened is legal, then that might be the very reason that Facebook’s users – all two billion of them – should be worried.

    A message to sell

    Facebook has grown dizzyingly rich by operating what is in effect a mass surveillance tool. Most users have no idea just how much social media companies know about them. The business model that has made Facebook very rich is based on the quality of that data. Facebook uses that data to sell your attention to advertisers. Advertisers use smart messaging to influence behaviour, and try to get us to buy their products.

    As Hugo Rifkind wrote in The Times, what has happened now is that Facebook, the biggest and most powerful social media platform, has gone from selling mere products to selling politics, too. Political operatives, whether they be from democracies or not, also want to use smart messaging to influence behaviour, in order to get us to vote for a particular candidate, or to undermine a consensus and degrade the truth.

    A smart corporate response from Facebook would grant that the remarkable innovations and technology that have created its news feed, an often addictive and for now free product, are now being exploited for goals that are not always socially desirable.

    Instead the company’s instinct was to alight on a technicality, and say this was no data breach, despite the fact that it suspended the accounts of Cambridge Analytica and its whistleblower, Chris Wylie. Now at last the company is stepping into gear, calling a meeting of all staff to address concerns and answer questions.

    Several different investigations on both sides of the Atlantic are now underway. Mark Zuckerberg may not want to appear before the DCMS Select Committee, but he will have to make a public pronouncement soon enough. Blog posts alone won’t do.

    Open and connected?

    It must never be forgotten that, with all the zeal that has become customary in the world of superstar tech firms, Facebook executives talk about their company in missionary terms. We’re on a mission, they say, to make the world more open and connected.

    There is a tension, then, between the liberal inclinations of some Facebook staff – though of course the company as a whole is politically neutral – and the fact that a British company on whose board Steve Bannon sits may have used the platform to help President Trump gain office. Of course, Cambridge Analytica’s power could be wildly over-stated, and we don’t yet know sufficient detail on Russian misbehaviour on the platform.

    There is a tension between the globalist outlook of a company that hires supremely clever graduates from around the world, and the more nationalist tendencies of the current White House administration.

    And there is a tension between the self-declared mission to champion openness, and the fact that Mark Zuckerberg, for reasons still unclear, seemed to be unavailable for comment as lawmakers demanded to hear from him.

    At some point, these tensions become unbearable. A month ago ago, I said Facebook may have peaked, in influence if not in wealth. I wonder if Alex Stamos’s departure will persuade some staff there of this thesis.

Pressure mounts on Zuckerberg to face data breach concerns

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is facing intensified calls to appear in person at investigations into the social network’s conduct.

His company has been accused of failing to properly inform users that their profile information may have been obtained and kept by Cambridge Analytica, a data firm widely-credited with helping Donald Trump win the 2016 US presidential election.

Facebook said on Friday it had blocked Cambridge Analytica from Facebook while it investigated claims the London-based firm did not, as promised, delete data that was allegedly obtained using methods that were in violation of Facebook’s policies.

Both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook deny any wrongdoing.

Despite pledging that in 2018 he would “fix” his company, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has managed to avoid engaging with the site’s growing number of critics – instead sending lawyers or policy bosses to various committee hearings.

The man in charge of Britain’s investigation into Russian meddling in the democratic process said he too wanted to press Mr Zuckerberg on the issue.

“I will be writing to Mark Zuckerberg asking that either he or another senior executive from the company appear to give evidence in front of the committee as part our inquiry,” said Damian Collins MP.

“It is not acceptable that they have previously sent witnesses who seek to avoid asking difficult questions by claiming not to know the answers.”

Mr Collins also said he would be recalling Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix to parliament to answer more questions.

“It seems clear that he has deliberately misled the committee and parliament,” Mr. Collins said.

Cambridge Analytica and Mr Nix have denied any wrongdoing.

Deleted tweets

In an attempt to get out ahead of a story in the New York Times and Observer newspapers, Facebook made an announcement late Friday night, California time, that it was blocking Cambridge Analytica from using Facebook while it investigated claims the inappropriately-obtained data had not been deleted as promised.

This was followed by remarks from Alex Stamos, the firm’s chief security officer, who wrote and then deleted a series of tweets. He objected to the word “breach” being used to describe how data from as many as 50 million peoples’ user profiles may have been obtained without explicit user consent.

“I have deleted my tweets on Cambridge Analytica,” he later wrote.

“Not because they were factually incorrect but because I should have done a better job weighing in.”

Christopher Wylie, a Canadian data analytics expert who worked with Cambridge Analytica, revealed how it and its partners harvested data belonging to mostly US voters. Over the weekend, he announced he had been suspended from Facebook.

Skip Twitter post by @chrisinsilico

Suspended by @facebook. For blowing the whistle. On something they have known privately for 2 years. pic.twitter.com/iSu6VwqUdG

— Christopher Wylie (@chrisinsilico) March 18, 2018

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End of Twitter post by @chrisinsilico

On top of its initial statement, Facebook on Sunday said it was conducting a “comprehensive internal and external review” into whether the data, gathered via an app created by Global Science Research (GSR), still existed.

GSR was set up by University of Cambridge associate professor Aleksandr Kogan and his colleague Joseph Chancellor. According to the Guardian, Mr Chancellor was given a job at Facebook as a researcher just months after GSR carried out the data-gathering exercise that Facebook now says violated its policies.

Facebook has not commented on the calls for Mr Zuckerberg to appear in front of the several committees expressing a desire to hear from him.

But one analyst warned that this controversy is a direct threat to Facebook’s business model, and therefore Mr Zuckerberg will be expected to put investors at ease, sooner rather than later.

“This has potential to grow into something a lot more onerous,” said Daniel Ives from GBH Insight.

“So he has to get ahead of this storm before it turns into a hurricane.”

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