In what has been termed the biggest data theft to have ever occurred, nearly 70 million people from the United States alone have had user data leaked from their Facebook profiles. In total, as much as 87 million accounts around the world have been affected, if not more. And with the growing number of people getting entangled, both the victims and the guilty, this maelstrom doesn’t seem like it will blow over anytime soon. In fact, it has already reached global proportions.
We already know that Cambridge Analytica, the big data firm at the eye of the storm, was using user data harvested from a third-party quiz app, thisisyourdigitallife, on Facebook to build psychographic profiles of millions of American voters. In detailed reports by American newspaper The New York Times and UK’s The Observer, the full extent of the unethical data mining carried out by the company was exposed.
Soon on the heels of the initial reports, a series of under-cover videos by UK’s Channel 4, revealed that the political clientele of this firm was far more out-reaching than one would have imagined. Through the revelations of former employees of the company itself, including the CEO Alexander Nix, the data analytics company had also gathered data from British, Indian and Kenyan voters to name a few.
Through every coverage of these events, Facebook has painted an image of betrayal of trust by Cambridge Analytica. And while the methods with which the data mining firm collected user information was indeed illegal and underhanded, a large portion of the blame falls on Facebook as well.
The firm was only able to collect data from user accounts on due to loopholes present in Facebook’s data privacy policies. These loopholes made it easy for third-party app developers to gain access to the data of not only consented accounts, but their friends’ accounts as well.
The consequences Facebook will face
In the wake of this enormous data privacy leak, the founder and CEO of the social media giant, Mark Zuckerberg, has a lot of questions to answer. He has agreed to testify before the American Congress. And he would soon be facing the music in Capitol Hill on April 10th and 11th.
In a statement on the upcoming hearing, top Republican and Democrat representatives said that 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.
Several law makers have made it clear that they do not intend to let Facebook off the hook so easily. In the light of the massive breach of data privacy, it is not surprising that the American government, as well as governments of other affected countries, are extremely concerned over the Facebook’s policies for protecting user information. The social media network would most likely to face serious legal repercussions.
Sen. John Kennedy, said on Sunday that he believes the issue is “too big” for Facebook to fix on their own. On channel CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’, he said along with several other law makers have many questions for Zuckerberg. He would be asked to clarify what Facebook’s role in the trend of spreading misinformation. And the company’s policies in protecting user information from third party apps who harvest this data.
The governments of several of the other countries who were affected by the data breach have sent notices to Facebook as well, asking Zuckerberg to answer their own questions. Both the governments of UK as well as India, have asked the CEO to testify in their own countries. But so far Facebook has refused and have put out written announcements instead of testifying in person.
One thing is clear. That Facebook would come out of this ordeal as the strong independent company it was when it first started fourteen years ago. It would not be surprising if events played out the same way as they did twenty-one years ago, when Microsoft was hit with serious regulations for its aggressive monopolizing of the market.
What is Facebook doing about it?
Senator Kennedy’s fears of that this may be too big for Facebook to handle could be well founded. As it turns out the scandal with Cambridge Analytica was not a one-time incident. Another data analytics firm has been suspended from Facebook’s platform under suspicion of misleading users and unethically collecting their data. CubeYou is another data firm, which used similar methods to Cambridge Analytica to collect user information, in the form of quizzes. They informed users that the quizzes were part of “non-profit academic research”. The data, which was collected by researchers of the Psychometric Lab at Cambridge University, was being sold to marketers. Channel CNBC discovered the dupe and sent notifications to Facebook. The social media giant then suspended the firm for further investigation. They have stated that if CubeYou refuses or fails the audit, their apps would be banned from Facebook.
Earlier, in a public Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg claimed responsibility for the massive breach of privacy. And promised to work on improving Facebook’s policies and fixing the loopholes that exist.
Starting from today, Facebook also rolled out a notification process which would alert users if their accounts had been breached, and information stolen. A link would appear at the top of an affected individuals News Feed, which would share details on the information which was stolen, and a list of apps and websites installed through Facebook. Options to delete individual apps will also be available.
Despite Facebook’s attempts at reassuring that they have learnt from their mistakes, the recent events delivered a serious hit to the company’s user base.
Many of Facebook’s users have expressed their displeasure to social network’s careless attitude to data privacy. The hashtag #Deletefacebook began trending on Twitter, with many notable personalities and organizations deleting their Facebook accounts and pages.
Among the list people who have turned their backs on Facebook is Elon Musk. In a response to a question tweeted at him, he removed the pages of both his companies, Space X and Tesla. Mozilla, the maker of the internet browser Firefox as well, announced that they have stopped any further advertising on the social networking website.
Millions of Facebook users have deleted or deactivated their accounts in anger as well.
Data privacy is the need of the hour
While deleting your Facebook account would help ensure that your own data would not fall prey of unethical data mining, it does not really solve the issue of data privacy. The case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is not the first time that user information was stolen and used for malpractices. And sadly, it would not be the last time.
But every cloud has its silver lining. The idea of data privacy and frightening lack of it is a discussion which had been stewing on the back burner for way too long. Due to Facebook’s massive slip-up, it has now been brought to the forefront of a global discussion. Hopefully organizations and governments who are capable and responsible for protecting internet rights of their people would be able to come up with better solutions. Already the EU has introduced the “General Data Protection Regulation” (GDPR) bill, which due to come into effect in May.
The world has already entered an era where one cannot live disconnected from everyone else. Unless one wants to live completely off the grind and in isolation. However, for every other individual who wants to stay in touch with the world, then the easiest way to do it is through the internet.
Hopefully, better data privacy laws would soon be in place, not only in Europe, but in the rest of the globe as well. And the knife wound which Facebook plunged into our backs, would soon be healed.