Facebook has suspended another American data analytics firm on Friday in an ongoing investigation on the collection and sharing of user data over possible policy violations.
Facebook is one of the largest social media corporations in the world. Founded by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, it had approximately 2 billion monthly users in 2017, and over 14 billion registered users. Facebook has faced increasing controversy in recent years. The company has 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, where it allegedly served as a platform for Russian interference.
Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal brought the issue of data privacy into the spotlight. It drew global attention to the degree of control that corporations, such as Facebook, have over personal information, sparking debates on privacy and data use. Cambridge Analytica, a data mining organization and political consultancy, received the personal information of approximately 87 million Facebook users through a third-party app. Facebook has faced litigation in European courts due to this issue and was investigated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Crimson Hexagon is a consumer-insights company, founded by Gary King, a professor at Harvard University in 2007, and is based in Boston, Massachusetts. It has contracts with government agencies across the world as well as with commercial companies like Adidas and Samsung. It applies specific methods to produce its own brand of insight and intelligence by analysing data from more than 1 trillion social media posts from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and blogs, discussion forums and news websites. According to the company, they have the world’s largest volume of unstructured text and images across social, online public, and enterprise-held data sources.
According to reports, data analytics firm Crimson Hexagon had contracts for more than $800,000 to analyze public Facebook data for clients including several American governmental agencies such as the state department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the army, the US Secret Service and a Russian civil society organization with ties to the Kremlin. Facebook has barred the firm from accessing user data and is looking into whether some of its deals were in violation of its policies on surveillance. While it has not clearly defined its policies, Crimson Hexagon would be criminally liable if the data was used to create tools for surveillance.
So far, there has been no evidence that the data was improperly obtained and the company is cooperating with the probe. “We don’t allow developers to build surveillance tools using information from Facebook or Instagram,” said a company representative. “We take these allegations seriously, and we have suspended these apps while we investigate.” The company’s CTO Chris Bingham has stated that their governmental customers are allowed to use its platform only for specific, approved cases, which excludes surveillance.
Facebook does not prevent third-parties from providing data insights to government agencies for market research purposes. Users can opt to share their information with developers on the website, who are permitted to use the aggregated information for business use only.
In March 2017, Facebook had introduced a policy prohibiting user data from being accessed for government surveillance following pressure from civil liberties groups who were increasingly concerned about the targeting of dissidents and protesters. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year, it had suspended 200 third-party applications with access to large amounts of user information pending review of whether they misused that data.
Crimson Hexagon has stated that it collects only publicly available social-media data that anyone can access, and not private data. The data accessed by Cambridge Analytica was private. “What Cambridge Analytica did was explicitly illegal, while the collection of public data is completely legal and sanctioned by the data providers that Crimson engages with, including Twitter and Facebook, among others,” according to Bingham. The company also defended the chairman’s position, stating that he has no role in daily operations.
Our assessment is that Facebook continues to face criticism over its handling of users’ personal data. We feel that the onus of responsibility is equally on the company as it is on partners to engage in the judicious management of user data. We believe that genuine conversations must be based on the broader role and use of public online data in the modern world.