Facebook critics want regulation, investigation after data misuse

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 March 2018
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Facebook critics want regulation, investigation after data misuse

SAN FRANCISCO: Facebook Inc. faced new calls for regulation from within US Congress and was hit with questions about personal data safeguards on Saturday after reports a political consultant gained inappropriate access to 50 million users’ data starting in 2014.
Facebook disclosed the issue in a blog post on Friday, hours before media reports that conservative-leaning Cambridge Analytica, a data company known for its work on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was given access to the data and may not have deleted it.
The scrutiny presented a new threat to Facebook’s reputation, which was already under attack over Russians’ alleged use of Facebook tools to sway American voters before and after the 2016 US elections.
“It’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves,” Democratic US Senator Amy Klobuchar tweeted.
“They say ‘trust us.’ Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before Senate Judiciary,” she added, referring to Facebook’s CEO and a committee she sits on.
Facebook said the root of the problem was that researchers and Cambridge Analytica lied to it and abused its policies, but critics on Saturday threw blame at Facebook as well, demanding answers on behalf of users and calling for new regulation.
Facebook insisted the data was misused but not stolen, because users gave permission, sparking a debate about what constitutes a hack that must be disclosed to customers.
“The lid is being opened on the black box of Facebook’s data practices, and the picture is not pretty,” said Frank Pasquale, a University of Maryland law professor who has written about Silicon Valley’s use of data.
Pasquale said Facebook’s response that data had not technically been stolen seemed to obfuscate the central issue that data was apparently used in a way contrary to the expectations of users.
“It amazes me that they are trying to make this about nomenclature. I guess that’s all they have left,” he said.


Scientist in Facebook data scandal Aleksandr Kogan says he is being scapegoated

Updated 24 April 2018
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Scientist in Facebook data scandal Aleksandr Kogan says he is being scapegoated

  • Aleksandr Kogan teaches at Cambridge University
  • Kogan was behind the app that allowed consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to farm data

LONDON: The academic behind the app that allowed consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to farm the data of some 87 million Facebook users said Tuesday he was being scapegoated while the social network was being “mined left and right by thousands” of companies.
Aleksandr Kogan, who teaches at Cambridge University, told a British parliamentary committee that criticism of his work by Facebook showed the US social media giant was in “PR crisis mode.”
“I don’t believe they actually think these things because I think they realize that their platform has been mined left and right by thousands of others,” said the Russian-American scientist, who is now banned from Facebook.
“I was just the unlucky person that ended up somehow linked to the Trump campaign. It’s convenient to point the finger at a single entity,” he said, playing down his own work as of little political value.
Kogan created a personality prediction app through his company Global Science Research (GSR), which offered a small financial payment in return for users filling out a personality test.
Facebook says it was downloaded by 270,000 people, but it also gave Kogan access to their friends, giving him a wealth of information on 90 million users, according to the social media giant’s boss Mark Zuckerberg.
The data was sold to Cambridge Analytica’s parent company. Cambridge Analytica went on to work on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
However, Kogan told MPs on Tuesday that the data was too imprecise to build up accurate profiles that could be used to effectively target political Facebook ads.
“One of the biggest points of confusion has been how accurate the personality scores we provided to SCL (CA’s parent company) were,” he said.
“The scores were highly inaccurate. We found that the scores were more accurate than a random guess, but less accurate than assuming everyone is average on every trait.”
Facebook’s own tools “provide companies a far more effective pathway to target people based on their personalities than using scores from users from our work,” he added.
Kogan said that CA assured him that what he was doing was “perfectly legal and within the terms of service” of the social media giant.
CA’s former chief executive Alexander Nix has denied using data collected by GSR, but Kogan called the claim “a fabrication.”
Clarence Mitchell, a CA spokesman told a press conference Tuesday that Kogan’s data “was shown to be virtually useless in that it was only just above random guessing.”
He reiterated CA did not use any of it on the Trump campaign and had broken no laws, while mistakes had been acknowledged.
“The company has been portrayed in some quarters as almost some Bond villain,” he said.
“Cambridge Analytica is no Bond villain.”
Kogan also accused Facebook of feigning ignorance of how their users’ data was being used, saying it was “well documented that Facebook collaborates with researchers.
“They gave me the data set without any agreement signed,” he explained. “Sometime later they came and we did have a signed agreement.”
When asked why Facebook would be so accommodating, Kogan replied that “this was something they gave their employees to stimulate them.”
Committee chairman Damien Collins asked if that meant Facebook let its employees give data to academics “and let them play with it?,” to which Kogan responded; “Yes.”
The scientist claimed in an earlier interview that “tens of thousands” of apps will have taken advantage of Facebook data rules.
It was, however, not part of Facebook’s terms for Kogan to sell data.
Born in Moldova and raised in Russia, before emigrating to the United States at the age of seven, Kogan studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and obtained his doctorate at the University of Hong Kong.
He joined the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology as a lecturer in 2012.
He has also conducted work funded by the Russian government with St. Petersburg University, but said that was irrelevant to the Facebook scandal.
The scientist also goes by the name Aleksandr Spectre, which he took when he married his Singaporean bride.
When an MP pointed out that the name was also the evil organization in James Bond films, Kogan said this was just an “unfortunate coincidence.”