Facebook privacy debate continues

Facebook privacy debate continues
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that the social media website collects and stores information on non-users. Facebook has faced litigation in European..

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that the social media website collects and stores information of non-users. Facebook has faced litigation in European courts due to this issue.

Background

Mark Zuckerberg is best known as the co-founder and CEO of the billion dollar social media and networking site Facebook. Zuckerberg launched Facebook at the age of 19, as an intra-university networking site. Today, Zuckerberg is worth approximately $66 billion (April 2018). He owns a 17% share in Facebook, which is one of the largest social media corporations in the world. Facebook had approximately 2 billion monthly users in 2017, and has over 14 billion registered users.

Earlier this month, Facebook was caught in scandal due to a data breach by the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica uses data mining and data analysis “to change audience behaviour”. In March, it was revealed that the company had received personal information from up to 87 million users, through a third party app. Cambridge Analytica has reportedly been involved in hundreds of political campaigns across the world, including in the Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, Argentina, UK, and US.

According to media reports, Facebook had known about the data breach since 2015, however it failed to take effective action or inform users. The Federal Trade Commission is currently undertaking a probe to find out whether the corporation failed to protect customer privacy based on an agreement signed in 2011. The company has also been criticised for its failure to address hate speech and terrorist propaganda, the presence of bots, and the proliferation of “fake news”. Facebook is thought to have been a key influencer in the 2016 US Presidential election and the Brexit vote.

Last week, the Facebook CEO was called to testify at two Congress hearings on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. At the hearing, he apologised for Facebook’s role in the scandal and the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 polls. He admitted that Facebook “didn’t do enough” to prevent its platform from being used by malicious forces, and played up the company’s image as a well-meaning entity. He said that Facebook is in an “arms race” against Russian influence.  He denied that Facebook sold information to advertisers, stating that they only do advertisement “placement”. He was non-committal on the possibility of imposing regulations, and circumvented several tough questions.

Analysis

At his second Capitol Hill hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mark Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook collects data on non-users as well.

Zuckerberg was being questioned by New Mexico Democrat Ben Lujan when he admitted, "In general we collect data on people who are not signed up for Facebook.” Lujan cited investigations by Gizmodo and a Belgium privacy watchdog. The former claims that Facebook creates “shadow profiles” on those who do not use the website. "You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you’re collecting data on people that are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement," Lujan told Zuckerberg.

The Facebook CEO claimed that the information was collected “for security purposes.” “We need to know when somebody is trying to repeatedly access our services,” Zuckerberg said. He stated that Facebook uses these tools to prevent data “scraping” and other malicious activity. Some have observed Zuckerberg’s non-committal responses and seeming reluctance to give straight answers to difficult questions. “He’s either deliberately misunderstanding some of the questions, or he’s not clear about what’s actually happening inside Facebook’s operation,” said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Facebook collects “cookies” from all sites with Facebook “like” and “share” buttons. “Cookies” are small pieces of data sent from a website and stored on a user’s computer. They store data on user preferences or browsing activity. Facebook has stated that it uses cookies to create analytics reports and report on site traffic. They have denied “tracking” users on third party websites, claiming that they collect “web impressions” and “website visit information”.

“This kind of data collection is fundamental to how the internet works,” Facebook said in a statement to Reuters. “There are basic things you can do to limit the use of this information for advertising, like using browser or device settings to delete cookies. This would apply to other services beyond Facebook because, as mentioned, it is standard to how the internet works.”

Earlier this year, a Belgian court ruled that Facebook would have to stop tracking people who are not registered users. "The judge ruled that this is personal data, which Facebook can only use if the internet user expressly gives their consent, as Belgian privacy law dictates," the court said in a statement at the time. “Facebook informs us insufficiently about gathering information about us, the kind of data it collects, what it does with that data and how long it stores it… It also does not gain our consent to collect and store all this information.” Facebook was asked to delete “illegally” gathered data. Facebook appealed but lost the case, and faces a fine of up to $125 million.

Assessment

Our assessment is that Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal has brought issues of data collection and weaponization into the spotlight. We believe that in the current global climate, it is becoming essential for firms to implement transparent business practices. Legislation such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will come into force this May, could help implement transparency. The GDPR will require corporations to provide user notice and consent prior to data collection.

Read more: Facebook leak hits 87 million

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