Facebook Faces Multiple Government Probes in Massive Data Scandal

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The European Union, the UK Information Commissioner, and United States lawmakers have ratcheted up the pressure on Facebook over a user data scandal that threatens to engulf the company.

The president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, summed up the stakes in a tweet on Tuesday:

Reports that Cambridge Analytica harvested the information of 50 million Facebook users without their consent, as part of a data analytics project for the 2016 Trump campaign. A number of U.S. lawmakers also have begun demanding answers from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other prominent Silicon Valley executives, amid a growing uproar over the reports, which surfaced last week.

In the UK, where Cambridge Analytica is based, an investigation is also under way.

“A full understanding of the facts, data flows and data uses is imperative for my ongoing investigation,” said UK Informational Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “This includes any new information, statements or evidence that may have come to light in recent days.”

Ahead of the Story

Facebook late last week suspended Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories Group, following disclosures that they had obtained personal information of more than 50 million Facebook users in violation of the company’s terms of service.

“Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook,” said Paul Grewal, deputy general counsel at Facebook. “If these reports are true, it’s a serious abuse of our rules.”

Aleksandr Kogan, a University of Cambridge professor, in 2015 violated Facebook’s platform policy and lied to the company after passing data along to SCL/Cambridge Analytica with a personality prediction app he created called “thisisyourdigitallife,” Facebook asserted in a post explaining its position.

The app, which was downloaded by about 270,000 Facebook users, basically harvested information not only from those users, but also from friends of those users, in order to create sophisticated profiles based on their likes, preferences, and other information gleaned from their online activity, according to Facebook.

After the 2015 violation, Facebook removed the app from the site and got certification from Kogan and SCL/Cambridge Analytica — and also from Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, another third-party firm that got the data — that they had destroyed all the information obtained through the app, according to Facebook.

Following its suspension, Cambridge Analytica maintained that it had contracted with Global Science Research to obtain the data in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act, and that it had deleted any data obtained through GSR after learning of the violation of Facebook’s terms of service.

Cambridge Analytica issued a statement claiming that it had worked with Facebook to ensure its satisfaction with the measures taken, and that it not breached any terms of service knowingly. It also provided a signed statement confirming deletion of all the improperly harvested data.

The company added that no data obtained from GSR was used as part of the services it provided the 2016 Trump campaign. The company later denied a report on Channel 4 in the UK that it had offered to set up “honeypots” to entrap politicians in scandals.

Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower and former Cambridge Analytica employee, said in multiple media interviews and on Twitter that Facebook had suspended his account for blowing the whistle on its involvement in this activity.

Hearings Demanded

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La., have asked Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to hold hearings with testimony from major technology executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Sens. John Thune, R-La., Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., fired off a letter to Zuckerberg and SCL Group CEO Nigel Oaks asking for a briefing and additional information regarding how user data was shared. Thune chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Wicker and Moran chair two of its prominent subcommittees, with oversight of consumer data issues.

Facebook has been under fire since the 2016 general election for spreading fake news that was designed to influence voter behavior, particularly in certain key states. President Trump won the Electoral College with narrow victories in three states, despite having lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

“This has particular resonance for politicians and regulators, both in the U.S. and Britain, who think Facebook has been lackadaisical in policing misuse of the platform,” Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at¬†Poynter, told the E-Commerce Times.

The Federal Trade Commission has failed to enforce a consent order from 2011 in which Facebook pledged to protect the privacy of user data, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“Facebook should never have disclosed this data to a third party,” he told the E-Commerce Times, “but the FTC dropped the ball. It simply failed to enforce its own legal judgment.”

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