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Data leak scandal: Facebook was sailing too close to the wind

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News Analysis |

Facebook is under investigation after startling revelations on Monday about how the data of millions of users may have been leaked.

Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a firm that was hired by the Trump campaign while he was running for the election. The firm created the psychological profiles of individual voters from the data of about 50 million Facebook users. Facebook denies any data “breach” occurred while, reportedly, the CEO of CA, Alexander Nix, was suspended on Tuesday, pending a full investigation.

Before delving further into the story, it is important to understand how data can be used to manipulate voter behavior. Our activities on Facebook including the ‘likes’ and ‘reacts’ increases data the social media giant has about individual users. In other words, our interests, hobbies, and dislikes are being documented in massive databases. By some estimates, the servers at Facebook process more than 500 terabytes of data each day. All this information used the right way, can define what makes us tick. Even though marketing campaigns by businesses and political messaging by candidates running for public office takes into consideration what the consumer and the voter wants, the fact of the matter is that when such campaigns are backed by hard data, the ‘propaganda’, if you will, is much more potent. When someone knows what you want and don’t want, it’s easier for him/her to convince you to buy their product or vote for them.

Read more: Investigations begin for Facebook data scandal

Facebook offers its social media platform to users ‘for free’. What it gets in return is data about individuals logging in. This data is used by advertisers to push their products to potential consumers via sponsored links. These links can be set to apply for particular demographics such as gender, age, country, and region etc. Commercial advertising is the business model for social media platforms. It’s how Facebook makes billions. However, the Trump campaign was the first of its kind when data about social media users was used on such a huge scale to get people to vote for a candidate running for the highest office in any country.

Cambridge Analytica uses data to ‘change audience behavior’. It has a commercial division and one political division. The former promises to improve brand’s marketing effectiveness by changing consumer behavior. The latter ‘find your voters and moves them to action’. Besides Trump, Senator Ted Cruz and Ben Carson also hired CA’s services, as per its website. American political consultant and expert communications strategist, Frank Luntz, once said that “there are no longer any experts except Cambridge Analytica.”. The motto of the UK-based firm is “Data drives all we do”. They may be right because the use of data for campaigning has proved to be highly effective. Donald Trump won the election despite losing the popular vote because his campaign knew precisely where and whom for votes. Since Trump’s victory, however, the firm hasn’t had any clients in the US.

Read more: Largest leak in Facebook history

A probe by the Observer and the New York Times revealed the dirty tricks that Cambridge Analytica has used in the past in order to ensure service delivery. An undercover investigation by Channel 4 also showed CA officials boasting about running ‘all’ of Trump’s digital campaign and potentially breaking election law. Reportedly, the firm uses Ex Israeli and British spies are used to gather dirt on political rivals to blackmail them. At times, sting operations are also conducted. In other words, opponents may be framed in a corruption scandal that would signal the end of their election race, if not their political careers.

Cambridge Analytica got Facebook in trouble

The reason why Cambridge Analytica has been under the spotlight and why Facebook is under investigation is not because data was used for political campaigning. That is not, strictly speaking, illegal. The issue is whether or not the data was stolen or “breached”. Andrew Bosworth, VP of AR/VR at Facebook, tweeted that this was unequivocally not a data breach. He further explained that people chose to share their data with third-party apps and if those third-party apps don’t follow agreements made with Facebook, then that is a violation worth investigating. In other words, Facebook is not guilty of any wrongdoing since no password or information of any kind was ‘stolen’. Cambridge Analytica violated terms of service agreement with Facebook. Eva, director of cyber-security at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has also said that the word “breach” should not be used. The foundation defends civil liberties in the digital world.

Read more: How Donald Trump stole Facebook data to win his election

There have been calls for Mark Zuckerburg to testify in Congress, although he hasn’t yet commented on the situation. The Federal Trade Commission in the United States is probing into Facebook’s data usage. The commission’s mandate is to protect American consumers. Several congressional committees may also launch inquiries. A privacy watchdog in Canada is also investigating the matter. In the United Kingdom, MPs have summoned Zuckerburg to appear before a select committee investigating fake news. Damina Collins, the chairman of the committee, has written to Facebook inquiring whether the data was stolen without user consent.

Facebook, valued at over $400 billion as of May 2017, saw its share plunge by 6.8% on Monday when the story first broke and 2.6% a day afterward. In other words, the tech giant has lost over $50 billion over the past couple of days.

On March 16th, Facebook announced that it will be suspending Strategic Communications Laboratories and its offshoot, Cambridge Analytica. Reportedly, a Facebook legal executive has briefed employees on the data leak. A personality prediction app that was downloaded by over 270,000 people scooped up the data from users and their friends. Usually, third-party apps ask for permission before taking account information. Most of the times, however, users tend to skip over the legal jargon and press on to using such applications.

Read more: Facebook profits booming despite drop in usage time

Facebook has over 2.2 billion users worldwide. 44 million are in Pakistan. This is the first time that data mining and data brokerage has gained attention on multiple continents. The technology that allowed all this to happen developed rapidly and legislation has been slow to catch up. Perhaps, now is a good time to for deciding how, why and when massive amounts of data can be used.

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