‘Broken’ Facebook under fire over data breach

Whiz kid: Before joining Cambridge Analytica, Wylie worked for the Liberal Democrats in the UK.

Should you quit Facebook? Over the weekend, the media reported a whistleblower’s account of serious misuse of user data. The social network is now under more pressure than ever…

“I need to make amends,” said the man with the pink hair.

Christopher Wylie, a 27-year-old vegan from Canada, may not seem like the type to mess with Western democracy. But the data expert was key in creating a system that harvested Facebook users’ data and used it in political campaigns. His regret led him to tell his story to The New York Times and The Observer, whose reports have caused a huge stir.

In 2013, he had a big idea. New research was showing that a person’s social media activity could be used to build a detailed profile of their personality. Wylie believed that it could predict their political views too. Armed with such data, a political candidate could, say, target adverts at potential voters.

Wylie soon found financial backers: Republicans in the USA. He helped set up a company in the UK, Cambridge Analytica (CA), to execute his vision. The company hired Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge academic, to create a Facebook app that asked users to give access to their profile. It also invited them to share data about their friends (without the friends’ consent).

Altogether, the app gathered data on around 50 million Americans. It claimed to need the data for academic purposes. In fact, Kogan sold the information to CA, which went on to help Donald Trump’s campaign. The sale violated Facebook’s privacy rules. The social media giant learned of this in 2015; according to Wylie, it did not try very hard to set things right.

As Wylie puts it, “We ‘broke’ Facebook.”

CA’s and Facebook’s influence on politics is being investigated in both the UK and the US. Wylie’s revelations, backed by hard evidence, contradict statements made by the firms to the inquiries. Both deny any wrongdoing. However, Facebook has suspended CA (and Wylie) from its platform, and says that it is looking into the issue.

This apparent breach of data comes at an awkward time for Facebook. The firm was already on the defensive, as critics accused it of spreading fake news and Russian propaganda. Should we just stop using the website?

Sell-by data

Rubbish, say some. Overall, Facebook is a force for good. Whether you want to raise awareness of an issue that’s close to your heart or just message a friend, the website is on your side. Let’s take this crisis as an opportunity to read its privacy rules, and make sure we’re using it responsibly.

How naive, reply others. Facebook’s privacy policy is designed to confuse you. But Wylie’s story shows that, even if it has the best intentions, the website is sloppy about protecting your data. A significant amount of your personal information is ending up in unauthorised people’s hands. The only way to avoid this for sure is to log off for good.

You Decide

  1. Would the world be a poorer place without Facebook?
  2. Will social media still exist in 50 years?

Activities

  1. Make a list of the information that is publicly displayed on your social media. Pair up, and write a “personality profile” of your partner based on their info.
  2. Spend a week without going on social media. Keep a journal of your thoughts about the experience. Will you go back to social media in a week? Why (not)?

Some People Say...

“Move fast and break things.”

Facebook’s former motto

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Kogan’s app paid Facebook users to take a personality test. In return, it got access to “almost everything” on their profiles, says Wylie. This was permitted — but selling the data was not (which is why Facebook is blaming Kogan). On learning of Kogan’s deal with CA in 2015, Facebook shut down his app, and asked everyone involved to delete the data. But it has been revealed that this did not happen.
What do we not know?
Exactly how this data was used, and what effect it had. Former officials on the Trump campaign say that CA helped them design target audiences for digital ads, model voter turnout, and more. However, some say that CA has exaggerated its own influence; others argue that it may not have relied much on the “stolen” data anyway.

Word Watch

Republicans
CA received its funding from Robert Mercer, an American billionaire who initially backed Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign before switching to Trump. The company was co-founded by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser.
Cambridge Analytica
The firm also worked with the pro-Brexit campaign in the UK. It is independent of Cambridge University.
Aleksandr Kogan
The Russia-born neuroscientist has received research grants from the Russian government.
50 million
This was equal to almost one quarter of registered American voters at the time.
Did not try
Wylie says that Facebook was slow to ask him to delete the data, and when it eventually did, it failed to double-check that he had complied.
Statements
The parliamentary committee that interrogated Facebook and CA executives now wants them to come back and explain themselves. It has called on Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg to appear in person.
Awkward time
Facebook’s shares took a plunge yesterday, as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic renewed calls to regulate Facebook more heavily. Zuckerberg’s wealth fell by $3.8 billion.