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Facebook Under Fire for Developer’s Data Mining


FILE - A Facebook employee walks past a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Britain's information commissioner tells BBC on Tuesday she is also investigating Facebook and has asked the company not to pursue its own audit of Cambridge Analytica's data use. She says Facebook has agreed.

The Facebook backlash is intensifying.

Congressional leaders, regulators in the United States and Europe and state officials are putting pressure on Facebook to answer questions about fresh allegations over how the social networking giant was manipulated in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Senate Commerce Committee has sent questions to the company about how a data consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, allegedly used 50 million Facebook users’ data to aid political campaigns. British and U.S. lawmakers called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify. The company is reportedly holding an employee meeting Tuesday to answer questions.

FILE - Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks in preparation for the Facebook Communities Summit, in Chicago, Illinois, June 21, 2017.
FILE - Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks in preparation for the Facebook Communities Summit, in Chicago, Illinois, June 21, 2017.

Among the tough questions the company faces is why it did not inform the affected users about the issue. On Monday, the firm’s stock dropped nearly seven percent, losing $36 billion in value, Facebook’s biggest one day decline in nearly four years. In early trading Tuesday, Facebook shares were down about three percent.

The probe over Cambridge Analytica is just the latest flashpoint around Facebook’s role in the 2016 election and comes as the company faces questions about how it should be regulated and monitored going forward.

With its more than two billion monthly users and billions of dollars in profit, Facebook has become a powerful conduit of news, opinion and propaganda, much of it targeted at individuals based on their own data. The social media site and investigators have found that Russia-backed operatives had used Facebook to spread disinformation and propaganda.

In recent months, the company, along with YouTube and Twitter, has changed some of its practices to reduce the power of automated accounts and propaganda. Facebook has said it would hire 10,000 security employees.

A professor and the data-mining company

Facebook’s most recent troubles began in 2013 when an app called “Thisisyourdigitallife” developed by Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge University professor, offered users a personality survey. The users were invited to download the app, which then gathered user information about their profiles and that of some of their friends.

The professor shared data with Cambridge Analytica, the data-mining firm that worked with U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign, according to The New York Times and The Observer.

While the gathering of the data was legitimate at the time, Facebook says the professor did not abide by the company’s rules when he passed the data to a third party – Cambridge Analytica – thus violating Facebook’s terms and conditions. Facebook discovered the violation in 2015 and required Cambridge Analytica to delete the data, but didn’t tell affected users.

Cambridge Analytica has denied that it kept the data. One Facebook executive in charge of security is reportedly leaving the firm as a result the matter.

Facebook suspends accounts

Last week, as the story broke, Facebook suspended the accounts of Cambridge Analytica and other parties, including the professor.

Facebook says its policies around outside parties and data collection have since changed. Now all apps requesting detailed user information go through the company’s App Review process. The company has hired a digital forensics firm to conduct an audit of Cambridge Analytica to see if the data was deleted.

“If this data still exists, it would be a grave violation of Facebook’s policies and an unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments these groups made,” Facebook said

What to do about Facebook

In recent months, privacy advocates, regulators and lawmakers have discussed new ways of regulating Facebook. At the moment, lawmakers are calling for answers.

“They’ve got responsibility to make sure that that information is used in an appropriate way, so we want to find out how it was gotten, how it was used, and we want Facebook obviously to be transparent about that,” said U.S. Senator John Thune, a Republican representing South Dakota.

“I have serious concerns about the role @Facebook played in facilitating and permitting the covert collection and misuse of consumer information by Cambridge Analytica,” tweeted U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

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