The BBC this week reported that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has launched an investigation into Facebook, after a political consultancy firm was alleged to have gained access to data from 50 million Facebook users.
Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy group based in London, is said to have obtained private information from tens of millions of individuals through an app made by an outside programmer—Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University.
The decision by Facebook to allow Kogan to pull data obtained via the app—not just the data of those that used the app, but from their friends’ profiles too—has landed Facebook in hot water, with the company’s shares dropping significantly since the company responded to the allegations last Friday.
Over the weekend, Facebook lost $35 billion in market value, and a #deleteFacebook campaign gained several prominent supporters.
If reports are correct, then the social media giant may find itself under even greater scrutinty very soon.
But what actually happened?
Kogan created an app called thisismydigitallife; a personality quiz available to users of Facebook. To take the quiz, users had to consent to the app gaining access to their Facebook profiles—and, notably, the profiles of their friends. This allowed Kogan to collect raw data from 50 million profiles, over half of which could be matched with other records to identify the user.
Facebook allowed Kogan to pull this data, with Kogan apparently claiming that he wouldn’t use it for commerical purposes, saying that he would be using it for academic reasons only.
However, Kogan then passed this massive dataset to Cambridge Analytica, something that constitued a violation of the Facebook rules. Facebook knew about this as far back as 2015, and the company says it was assurred by Kogan that they had deleted the data that they’d collected. However, there are said to be hundreds of gigabytes of that data still on Cambridge Anayltica’s servers.
While much of this story broke back in 2015, last week former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie provided evidence and testimony to two media outlets, giving much more detail than had previously been released.
Why does this matter?
Such a huge dataset is useful in many ways, and may have helped Cambridge Analytica to strategise for its political clients.
Outside of this, though, this story highlights the way in which Facebook allows outside developers to gain access to the private information of its many, many users.
Facebook have since said that they’ve banned both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica from its platform, but apps that harvest data in such a way seem to have been commonplace on Facebook in 2015, and Facebook did allow Kogan access to this data—even though the friends of those using the app did not consent to having their data collected.
It’s too early to tell whether this situation will have a long-term effect on Facebook, on its market value or the number of people using the platform, but this case has at the very least opened up a discussion about privacy settings, what data we give access to, and whether or not all of this is okay.