Facebook's inaction over the illegal harvesting of data from 50 million unsuspecting users has caused uproar, and authorities want answers from CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

By Joe McDonough


Posted on March 20, 2018

Zuckerberg is facing growing pressure to appear before lawmakers from both sides of the Atlantic, as fallout from the Cambridge Analytica (CA) data harvesting scandal continues.

In the US, Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Kennedy wrote a joint-letter calling for Zuckerberg to appear before Congress.

The letter also asks Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley to call for a hearing in response to the reports that Facebook failed to protect users’ private information by allowing Cambridge Analytica to extract, store and possibly utilise vast amounts of personal data.

“While this Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism convened a hearing with witnesses representing Facebook, Twitter, and Google in October of 2017, we have yet to hear from the leaders of these companies directly,” Kennedy and Klobuchar wrote.

Facebook executives have previously testified on behalf of the social media giant in regards to Russian meddling, but Zuckerberg has never fronted himself.

Klobuchar added to her demand on Monday morning, telling NPR’s Morning Edition that the CEO needs to speak on behalf of the company in-person.

“They have not come before us, they’ve given it to their lobbyists and their lawyers, and we think that they need to take responsibility for what’s going on,” Klobuchar said.

“I don’t know why this CEO, even though he’s super famous and has made a lot of money, why he also doesn’t have to come before the committee.”

I don’t know why this CEO, even though he’s super famous and has made a lot of money, why he also doesn’t have to come before the committee.

Senator Ron Wyden has also sent a letter to Zuckerberg, demanding Facebook make public every instance in the past 10 years in which a third-party company violated Facebook’s privacy rules in the collection of users’ information.

The Federal Election Commission has even requested the presence of Zuckerberg, Larry Page (CEO of Google parent Alphabet), and Jack Dorsey (Twitter CEO) to testify at a public hearing set for June 27.

“Your perspective would be of great value to the Commission and to the nation,” Ellen Weintraub, the FEC’s vice chair said in her letter to the chief executives.

Meanwhile in Europe, Top UK regulator Elizabeth Denham, and Antonio Tajani, the head of the European Parliament, have launched separate investigations. With Tajani saying that if the data storing allegations are true, it would mark “an unacceptable violation of our citizens’ privacy rights”.

Conservative lawmaker Damian Collins has also revealed he will be asking Zuckerberg to provide evidence to the Commons committee.

“Someone has to take responsibility for this,” Collins said in a statement. “It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to stop hiding behind his Facebook page.”

What Cambridge Analytica is understood to have done

CA, a British Big Data firm specialising in ‘psychographic’ profiling, is accused of illegally harvesting data on 50 million Facebook users.

Over the weekend, a joint probe by the New York Times and The Guardian, quoted former CA employee turned whistle-blower Christopher Wylie in saying that the data was gathered under the pretence of “academic research”, but was actually used to create personalised political advertisements, allegedly in support of Trump and for the promotion of the pro-Brexit campaign Leave.EU.

According to Wylie, a Russian-American psychology professor at Cambridge University named Aleksandr Kogan and his company Global Science Research built a personality-testing app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’.

To take the quiz, purported to be for academic purposes, 270,000 people gave the app permission to access data via Facebook on themselves and their friends, exposing a network of 50 million people without their knowledge or consent.

However, Facebook’s terms of service were only violated once GSR sold the information on to a third party — CA — which is understood to have then used the data for highly-precise, targeted ads.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons,” Wylie told The Observer.

“That was the basis that the entire company was built on.”

When Facebook found out about the leak in 2015 it failed to notify users, and then took until August 2016 before it sent a letter to CA demanding the company destroy all the data it obtained from the 50 million profiles.

Only it didn’t follow up on the directive, and the Times reporters claim to have had access to raw data from the breach.

Facebook has since admitted that CA may have held on to some of the data, and has hired digital forensics firm, Stroz Friedberg, to perform an audit.

In other words, Zuckerberg has seemingly done very little to protect the privacy of Facebook’s users.

CA “strongly denies” inappropriately storing Facebook data to aid the Trump presidential campaign, and says it has destroyed all the user data it extracted.

Facebook share-price tumbles

Amid fears that the scandal could result in greater regulation of the social media giant, Facebook has experienced its steepest one-day decline since March 26, 2014, with shares finishing down about 6.8% on Monday at $172.56.

That equates to more than $US30 billion being wiped from the company’s market cap.

According to CNBC, Zuckerberg — who owns more than 400 million shares of Facebook stock — lost approximately $6 billion because of Monday’s plunge.

His shares are still worth close to $70 billion in total.

How accurate is the psychological profiling adopted by Cambridge Analytica?

In a 2016 profile for Das Magazin, a Zürich-based culture magazine, the predictive power of Michael Kosinski’s model is revealed.

Kosinski, in partnership with fellow Cambridge student David Stillwell, developed the MyPersonality app, which enabled users to fill out different psychometric questionnaires.

From a simple online quiz, the responses allowed the psychologists to calculate the Big Five personality traits of respondents.

Kosinski’s team could then compare the results with what the respondents liked, shared or posted on Facebook, or what gender, age, place of residence they specified, to exact their profiling.

In no time, they owned the largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever collected.

I did not build the bomb. I only showed that it exists.

Kogan approached the pair about buying access to the the MyPersonality database on behalf of Strategic Communication Laboratories, which later spun off a new company called Cambridge Analytica.

And while Kosinski didn’t accept the offer, Kogan and GSR were able to recreate it.

Here’s how the authors of the profile, Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus summed up the accuracy of Kosinksi’s model:

“In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook ‘likes’ by a user, it was possible to predict their skin colour (with 95% accuracy), their sexual orientation (88% accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85%).

“But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.

“The strength of their modelling was illustrated by how well it could predict a subject’s answers. Kosinski continued to work on the models incessantly: before long, he was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of 10 Facebook likes,” they explained.

“Seventy likes were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 likes what their partner knew. More likes could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves.”

Kosinski, who has long warned of the dangers of using psychological targeting in a political setting, is disappointed it is now being used that way.

“No, this is not my fault. I did not build the bomb. I only showed that it exists,” he said.