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Facebook marks 15 years under a cloud of scandal

Loic Venance, AFP | A man holds a smartphone with the logo of social network Facebook in Nantes on January 15.

The world’s largest social media site, with more than 2 billion users worldwide, marks its 15th anniversary Monday beset by scandals and accusations that it has failed to prevent, and even fostered, the mining of user data by private companies.


Given its stated commitment to remaining a free service, the social media giant had to look at other ways of monetising its business model. The data it collects on users offered one way to turn information into a profit-making enterprise. Facebook “likes”, link shares, user profiles and online quizzes all offer insights that can be put to use targeting potential customers – and voters.

One of Facebook’s first attempts to monetise user data took place in 2007, when its Beacon system began tracking users whenever they visited third-party partner sites. So someone who bought something online while still logged in to Facebook would have that purchase announced in their Facebook news feed, with often unintended consequences.

In 2011 the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered Facebook to improve its handling of personal data after it was revealed that information Facebook users thought was private had been shared with the public starting in 2009.

The FTC also maintained that Facebook had allowed advertisers to access a user’s personal information whenever he or she clicked on a Facebook ad.

Cambridge Analytica

A major player in one of Facebook’s most notorious scandals came on the scene in February 2014. Political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix teamed up with Cambridge psychology lecturer Aleksandr Kogan, who developed an app (thisisyourdigitallife) offering a personality quiz. And Cambridge Analytica paid people to take it.

“The app recorded the results of each quiz, collected data from the taker’s Facebook account – and, crucially, extracted the data of their Facebook friends as well,” UK newspaper the Guardian wrote in an exposé of Cambridge Analytica practices.

To be eligible for the quiz one needed to be a US voter with a Facebook account. The results were linked to respondents’ other Facebook data as well as voter rolls to build an algorithm that could predict the results of other users.

From an initial group of 320,000 quiz-takers the researchers managed to create records on at least 2 million people across 11 key US states, the Guardian reported: “Eventually a few hundred thousand paid test-takers would be the key to data from a vast swath of US voters.”

Cambridge Analytica – funded largely by conservative US billionaire Robert Mercer and run by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon – could then use this psychological information to target more effective messages at the US electorate or even suppress turnout.

Nix and other Cambridge Analytica executives later boasted how they used the tools they developed to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election.

Cambridge Analytica – as well as Bannon, its former vice president – are also suspected of having played a role in the “Leave” campaign ahead of the Brexit referendum.

Facebook has denied that Cambridge Analytica’s profile mining constituted a data breach but said in a statement last year that it had removed Kogan’s app from the site and demanded all inappropriately collected data be destroyed.

“Although Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels”, he subsequently violated Facebook platform policies by “passing information on to a third party”.

A New York Times investigation last March found that Cambridge Analytica not only amassed this private Facebook data but that it "still possesses most or all of the trove”.

Cambridge Analytica then reportedly shared data with entities linked to Russian intelligence.

Facebook admitted in 2017 that Russian content, which heavily favoured Donald Trump, likely reached as many as 126 million Americans on its platform during the US presidential election campaign. This content included fake news items and memes targeting African American voters – who tend to vote Democrat – to discourage them from voting.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 in June, former US director of national intelligence James Clapper said Russian interference may have even been responsible for handing the election to Trump.

"When you consider that the election turned on less than 80,000 votes in three key states, when you look at the massive effort that the Russians directed across many fronts and using multifaceted enablers, notably social media... "

"To me, it just stretches logic and credulity to think that the Russians didn’t have [a] profound impact on the outcome of the election and in fact could have turned it," he said.

Data sharing

But more trouble was brewing for Facebook. In April 2018 the company announced that Cambridge Analytica may have accessed the data of up to 87 million people. (Cambridge Analytica, for its part, said it only had data on 30 million.)

Facebook said “malicious actors” had taken advantage of its search tools, allowing them to collect information on most of its 2 billion users.

“Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped,” the company said in a blog post.

Hackers had also accessed the platform’s account recovery system by pretending to be users who forgot their passwords.

Facebook said it had unveiled new privacy policies attempting to clarify what data it collects and how it is used. But founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted fixing all of the outstanding issues could take years.

Days later, Zuckerberg faced a Senate hearing looking into the data mining allegations. He told lawmakers that every time users share something on Facebook they are offered options on how to share it. But he said Facebook does store content, with permission, that is later used for audience targeting.

“We do not sell data to advertisers,” he said.

“What we allow is for advertisers to tell us who they want to reach, and then we do the placement … That’s a very fundamental part of how our model works and something that is often misunderstood,” he added.

But later revelations again piqued concerns that the firm might be willing to sacrifice user privacy for ad dollars.

The New York Times reported in early June that Facebook had struck data-sharing agreements with “at least 60” mobile device manufacturers including Apple, Amazon, BlackBerry, Microsoft and Samsung. The paper found that Facebook allowed the companies “access to the data of users’ friends without their explicit consent, even after declaring that it would no longer share such information with outsiders”.

Nor was increasing Facebook privacy settings always enough to avoid having your data accessed.

“Some device makers could retrieve personal information even from users’ friends who believed they had barred any sharing.”

Facebook officials said the data sharing fell within the scope of its privacy policies.

Just two days after the Times report, Facebook publicly admitted that it had allowed Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, to access data on the site’s users. US officials have repeatedly expressed concern that Huawei could be used as a conduit for spying and sabotage, noting its links to the Chinese government.

Another New York Times report from December found that Facebook gave 150 private companies access to the data of hundreds of millions users.

“Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent,” the Times wrote.

Moreover, Facebook allowed Spotify, Netflix and the Royal Bank of Canada to read, write or delete private messages.

The social network also gave retail companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Sony access to user names and contact information – including email addresses and phone numbers – through their friends.

A company so beset by scandals would normally be in hot water. Indeed, as reports of the breaches have taken hold the company's share price has at times dropped precipitously. But as the world's largest social media site by far – with more than 1.5 billion daily users – there is not much threat of competition on the horizon.

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