Are Third Parties Misusing Facebook Data?

[Editor’s Note: Despite the byline this post was written by Creighton University Arts & Sciences student Elizabeth Fagerland.]

In the past week, Facebook has dealt with their stock plummeting and accusations of data misuse through a third party app used by Cambridge Analytica. It all started March 17 when a previous employee of Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie, disclosed that the company gathered information from more than 50 million Facebook users. The firm is based in the United Kingdom; however, it has sparked controversy in the United States as well. The apparent intent of the data was to use it to personalize political ads on the social media platform. It is unclear when this data harvest began. Almost immediately, both British and US lawmakers wanted to know how this information was obtained without alerting Facebook users; several US senators called for Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, to testify before Congress.

Zuckerberg issued a long response on Facebook. He outlined the history of suspicious activity with the company that surfaced through various news sources, such as The Guardian and The New York Times. The relationship reportedly began in 2013 when Aleksandr Kogan developed a Facebook app that allowed Cambridge Analytica to collect personal information for a personality quiz from users and their friends, which they didn’t disclose. Facebook implemented stricter app data restrictions, requiring approval for apps to ask “sensitive” information. Facebook then asked and received confirmation that the company deleted the information they obtained from users.  After last week, Facebook actually banned Cambridge Analytica from using their services when they discovered Cambridge Analytica did not actually delete it. Zuckerberg outlined steps the company planned to take; but will these be enough? In addition to the Facebook post, Zuckerberg took out full-page ads as apologies (see above) in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and various UK papers.

To make matters worse, two days later Britain’s Channel 4 News reported they had an undercover video claiming Cambridge Analytica “secretly stage-managed” the Kenyan presidential campaigns in 2013 and 2017. The company denied these reports.  However, the next day, another undercover video surfaced showing Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix “bragging about dirty political tactics” used in the 2016 election; he was suspended when the video was released. In reaction to this, the Federal Trade Commission began an investigation to determine whether Facebook breached data privacy.  With increasing fears of social media regulation, Facebook’s stocks plummeted 9 percent.

However, this is not the beginning of Facebook’s issues with data harvesting or third party users. They are also under fire for apparently saving years of data from Android users regarding their phone calls and texts.  Facebook responded to this, claiming the data was only scrubbed from users who use the Messenger or Facebook Lite apps.  According to Facebook, this data pull began when users allowed the applications access to their phone contacts, a feature that can be turned off by users.

There are a lot of articles and speculation surrounding this data breach currently.  As more information surfaces, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to sort through accusations, but there are some questions to consider.  How culpable is Facebook when third party users breach or obtain user data? Was there anything Facebook should have done differently? How should Cambridge Analytica be held accountable? How can large social media platforms like Facebook, regulate what user data is disclosed to third parties?

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